Youth leagues upset by user fee Athletic groups must pay to play on county fields

Small clubs feel pinch

Organizers fear cost will deter youngsters from joining teams

August 30, 1996|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

If Jane and Johnny want to play in Howard County's youth athletic leagues, their parents will have to pay to use the county's parks -- a new measure that has youth groups fuming.

"People are really up in arms about this thing," said Garry Cardinal, soccer commissioner for the Savage Boys and Girls Club, which recently received a $3,200 bill from the county for the use of Savage Park's soccer fields for the fall. "These fees have put quite a shock into some of the clubs."

Starting this fall, Howard's youth leagues will be required to pay $12 a game to use playing fields in county parks. "Game" is defined to include practice time and competitions.

That has resulted in bills for thousands of dollars to youth leagues. County officials estimate that the fees will cost each player $2 to $4 a sport for a season, depending on the size of the program. But Savage youth sport organizers say that by next spring the cost per player could rise as much as $25.

Youth organizers say the addition to current participation fees -- as much as $130 a player for some Savage traveling soccer teams -- could lead to a sharp drop in the number of youths who sign up to play. The county's youth leagues include 17,000 to 18,000 baseball, soccer and lacrosse players.

Most fall youth leagues set their registration fees in the spring and don't want to ask parents to pay additional money this fall, organizers say. Such small clubs as the Savage Boys and Girls Club are feeling the financial pinch and might have to limit enrollment or cut free registration programs that help low-income residents, officials said.

Officials at the county Department of Recreation and Parks said the user fees were needed to bolster their dwindling budget. The department lost $314,420 from its budget this fiscal year, which began July 1.

The department's budget is $13.1 million, of which 60 percent, or $7.9 million, comes from user fees. Revenue from user fees has been increasingly rapidly since 1990.

Recreation officials also have been increasing fees for pavilion rentals at parks and for classes offered by the department. They expect the new user fees collected from youth leagues to bring in about $45,000.

"In order to continue to provide those services, we were forced to establish the user fees," said Jeffrey Bourne, director of recreation and parks. "All of the [youth] groups are going through a little sticker shock. They went from paying nothing to multiple thousands of dollars."

Two of Howard's neighboring counties -- Anne Arundel and Carroll -- don't require such fees of their youth leagues. But a recreation official in Anne Arundel County said more of the recreation expenses eventually will be passed on to consumers.

"I think you're going to see more and more user fees," said Lisa DiGinacinto, division chief for organized recreation for the Anne Arundel Department of Recreation and Parks. "We're looking at it. More of the [tax] money goes to police and fire and those types of things. Our budgets are being cut."

Howard's new user fee for playing fields has sent the county's youth leagues scrambling to find other places to play. Public school fields are the primary alternatives.

Although the school system has at times considered charging for its fields, they remain free. And there is no plan to charge a user fee in the near future.

"We got a lot of public sentiment against the idea," said Charles Parvis, the school system's specialist for community services. "At this point in time, we are not considering charging for our fields."

But demand for fields -- especially during the spring baseball season -- far exceeds what the school system can supply. So youth leagues will be forced to seek playing fields through the county parks department.

The various leagues use as many as six fields -- sometimes more DTC -- seven days a week for as many as 10 weeks. Leagues could end up paying $10,000 or more for a season.

"What we're trying to do is squeeze as many games as we can on the fields we get free through the school system," said James Carlan, president of the Soccer Association of Columbia, which has 4,700 players this fall.

"But in the spring, it's a totally different story," he said. "There's competition with baseball and other sports. We may have to have a meeting in the spring about the registration fees."

The soccer group now charges $85 for registration for its combined fall and spring programs.

The Savage Boys and Girls Club charges $35 to $130 for its soccer program -- depending on the package participants request -- and doesn't want to increase its rates.

"The people in the Savage area are not quite as affluent as some of the areas of Howard County," said Cardinal, the club's soccer commissioner. "Some of these kids are going to have to forgo playing, and then they're out on the street again."

Cardinal said the club's base- ball fees are likely to go up as much as $25 a child, much more than the recreation and parks department's estimate of $2 to $4.

"Baseball is one of the programs that barely covers its expenses already," Cardinal said.

The Savage group uses some school fields but usually doesn't get enough of them to avoid using county-owned fields. The Savage and Elkridge youth leagues are considering teaming up and sharing fields to avoid paying the user fees.

Bourne said he plans to meet with the Savage Boys and Girls Club next month to discuss concerns about the fees. But he said the charges won't be eliminated.

"There are going to have to be changes," he said. "This is not just the Savage Boys and Girls Club."

Pub Date: 8/30/96

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