Gravy Train

Taxpayers foot the bill for Rover's ramblin'

Ohboyohboyohboyohboy!

The exclamation might as well be inscribed in cartoon voice balloons extending from the panting mouths of canines great and small as their owners let them scramble from cars and minivans in a parking lot at the T-Rex Technology Center in Boca Raton. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, a parade of humans and pets treads upon designated crosswalks, then traipses along a fenced blacktop trail that winds into a wooded area. Along the shady lane are wooden contraptions that look like birdhouses filled with plastic baggies. The obvious newness of everything contrasts with the deserted and dilapidated playground equipment that lurks out of reach behind the shiny chainlink fence. There are metal jungle gyms shaped like elephants and centipedes as well as twisting, rusted slides and chains where swings once hung.

Children apparently don't play here anymore, but dogs sure do. At the end of the path is a two-acre temporary park divided by the same chainlink fence into two sections, one for animals weighing more than 30 pounds and the other for punier pooches. Each space has a pavilion, special water fountains, lots of grass, and receptacles for disposal of those birdhouse bags after they have been used to scoop up doo-doo. The facility, which opened this past March, cost $63,000 and is only temporary. The city has set aside another $300,000 to build a permanent park, which is expected to open in a year, for Boca Ratonians' best friends.

Dog parks present a new way for local governments in Broward and Palm Beach counties to fritter away taxpayer dollars. The facilities have turned into status symbols. Since 1998, when Florida's first one opened in Coral Springs, officials have dedicated more than $1.2 million to building the eight dog parks that are either in existence or in the works. An estimated $137,424 more may be used to build pup playgrounds in Pompano Beach and western Broward County. Then there's upkeep, which can range from $20,000 to $350,000 annually per park.

Agility equipment for the mutts includes hurdles, tunnels, ramps, pedestals, and weave pulls (rows of six vertical poles through which trained dogs move). Each apparatus generally costs at least $500. Canine drinking fountains, equipped with extra-low basins and human-operated spigots, go for an average of $1500; the plumbing for the doggy showers costs about $200.

The craze began in the mid-1990s when cities around the country started setting aside areas in public parks where people could unleash their animals. (Juno Beach and Fort Lauderdale have long allowed pets to roam free on designated areas of seashore.) Nationwide the number of dog parks has grown from 20 in 1995 to more than 500, according to a Coral Springs- datelined USA Today report published in June that glossed over the cost issue. In the past six months, 63 newspapers across the nation, including the Sun-Sentinel,The Palm Beach Post, and even the stately Washington Post, have written more than 200 sweetie-pie stories about places for canine respite while largely dodging the issue of taxpayer burden.

Dr. Steven Paul, a Coral Springs veterinarian, is one of the pioneers responsible for creating these elaborate playgrounds for dogs. Paul says he was inspired during a 1992 medical conference in Massachusetts, when he saw pets and owners frolicking, sans leash, on the Boston Common. Over the next several years, Paul rallied fellow citizens and city officials alike, cajoling high-school shop classes to build some play equipment, raising more than $20,000 in local donations, and convincing his city to donate part of the Coral Springs Sportsplex land and money from its capital improvement fund to his cause. (Sportsplex executive director Tom Messenheimer says the city has spent about $50,000 to create and maintain the canine area.)

The Coral Springs park opened in 1997 under the name InnoPet Dog Park. In exchange for naming rights, the pet-food company initially donated $55,000 and promised an annual $5000 contribution for five years. When Innopet went bankrupt two years ago, officials at the animal hospital Paul owns decided to assume responsibility for the yearly donation, and the facility was renamed Dr. Paul's Pet Care Center Dog Park.

Paul, whose nine-year-old golden retriever, Saint, often accompanies him to work, has become a renowned dog-park expert. "I consult with folks from New York, Minnesota, Rio de Janeiro, and Germany who visit here and want to build dog parks of their own," says Paul, who also owns two cats, 14-year-old Mischief and 15-year-old Sadie. He acknowledges the equipment isn't cheap. The plastic poop pouches alone cost 25 cents each. That can add up. South Florida dog parks are expected to attract as many as 2000 canine visitors weekly, which means an annual expenditure of as much as $26,000 for... well, for crap. While most places, including the Coral Springs park and another in Fort Lauderdale, are now moving toward five-cent sacks, folks in Wellington (where proponents plan to spend $90,000 on temporary and permanent parks) smell an opportunity. People or businesses who donate $300 to the village's park fund can get their names emblazoned on the bags.

It has become all too easy to bark "spare no expense" in the name of civic pride. Delray Beach built its Lake Ida Dog Park with $40,000 donated by resident George Cornell in 1999. That inflamed the sense of competition among South Florida's well-to-do communities. Cities began clamoring to build their own bigger, better -- and publicly funded -- pup hangouts.

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