BROOKSVILLE — Strapped for cash, Hernando County officials are looking to balance the books in part by charging fees for recreational leagues to use taxpayer-funded fields and facilities.
Carmon Laferty, vice president and secretary of the Brooksville Bombers AAU, worried last week that the county's desire to bring in more money could keep Hernando kids off the playing fields.
"It's all parent paid-for,'' Laferty said. "With the way the economy and everything is right now, it's difficult with the price of gas and everything. We're all feeling the crunch on that.''
The county is proposing a fee of $25 per participant per year, down from the original fee of $60. The county anticipates collecting about $130,000 annually from fees raised from both youth and adult leagues.
Youth sports leaders have known about the possibility of fees for months, said Hernando County's director of parks and facilities Pat Fagan. County staff brought the proposal to the County Commission on Tuesday as part of a preliminary look at the 2009 county budget.
The advance notice isn't making the news any easier to take.
"We'll probably have to cut back the program,'' said Ray Schnyderite, president of West Hernando Little League.
The league uses the Little Red School House Ballfield a couple of days each week for practices. That is because the league serves 400 to 500 youngsters and they cannot all be accommodated on the league's own privately run field.
As for passing the cost along to parents, Schnyderite said that the parents already have enough of a financial burden to handle.
He said it was sad that tax reforms led to the proposed fees to use the parks. "All of this for saving $60 to $80 on our taxes,'' he said. "For a family, they just went in the hole.''
The Hernando Youth League, which has about 3,500 members, would likely try to find a way to keep youngsters from being turned away, said league president Mike Walker.
That could mean having to put more of a focus on fundraising, sponsorships and collecting donations, he said. Each division of the league will have to work out how to pay that cost on its own and he expected more conversation on the topic in the coming weeks.
Walker is in a unique position to understand just what the county is going through with property tax collections down while still needing to maintain public facilities. As Brooksville's parks and recreation director, Walker can see both sides of the argument.
"We do use the facilities over and above normal use. So should the Hernando Youth League participate in assisting in the maintenance of the facilities? Probably so,'' he said.
He said the league is "blessed'' to be able to have such good athletic facilities in the county. "If to keep that level of service where it is we need to help out, then we need to help out,'' he said.
Walker said that the idea of charging fees for users of public athletic fields and facilities is "the norm'' throughout the state.
As the county has been tightening its belt to cope with declining tax revenue, Fagan examined where his department spent the most on maintaining facilities.
"For the parks and athletic fields, the athletic leagues receive a much higher level of service than the maintenance in the other parks,'' he said.
The fields must be mowed two to three times a week during the growing season. The county must collect trash after athletic events, clean restrooms and mark fields. During the off-season, county workers apply chemicals to keep the fields healthy.
"There's a lot to it,'' Fagan said. "We're asking the leagues to work with us and they have.''
First Hernando Youth Soccer, a soccer league in Spring Hill, helped the county build the soccer complex at Anderson Snow Park. The league has the priority for use of the fields there and gives the county $10,000 per year to offset maintenance costs.
The county also provides leagues with concession areas in the parks and they pay a flat fee to use those. The leagues also pay for the use of lights at the parks.
Fagan said he hopes to see that same level of cooperation over the fee issue because the county has to be able to maintain its valuable assets. And people need a place for recreation.
"The public needs to understand that if you close down parks and don't maintain them, there's going to be a lot more activity at the county jail,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.