OLDSMAR — For years the Oldsmar Little League has used the Canal Park ball fields as home base under an agreement with the city that required the league to help maintain the facility and pay certain fees.
But the city is threatening to cancel the agreement, citing unpaid bills and mismanagement by the league.
Last week, a standing-room-only crowd of 200 Little League supporters — some holding signs that said "Don't punish our kids for the parents' mistakes'' and "Let's Play Ball'' — came to the City Council meeting to ask for a second chance.
League officials said they are working to solve their problems. Three weeks ago the league president was forced out and a new president was named. And they are investigating what happened to the thousands of dollars that should have been paid to the city.
"We have had to make changes concerning the leadership for the board, and these changes are for the better,'' new league president David Waldman told the council. "We want to work in tandem with the City Council and the city of Oldsmar to make a successful, long-running league. . . . We'll solve the financial issues and all the issues the city has.''
Both sides say poor management by the league created the problems, which include overdue bills, a $1,300 check to the city that bounced, and failing county health inspections of the Canal Park concession stand.
In September, city leisure services director Lynn Rives met with Little League board members, telling them the league owed the city several thousand dollars in utility fees. "The balance goes back to March 2013, and they also still needed to make good on the $1,300 check with insufficient funds,'' he said.
After two months, however, the league still had not paid the city back. "It seems they did not do anything,'' Rives said.
The city didn't hear from the league, Rives said, until it sent a letter out the first week of November threatening to end the longtime arrangement for the use of Canal Park.
"Yes, they gave us the check to cover the one with insufficient funds, but I told them we need to see more from them if we are going to continue with our agreement," Rives said. "They still owe us money. . . and one of the first things we need from them is a financial audit.''
At a league board meeting following receipt of Rives' letter, president Jennifer Wedmore was replaced by Waldman, a three-year board member.
Waldman didn't want to name any individuals, but he blamed the problems on "two or three people who are no longer associated with the board. Many things were not communicated in the past and it turned into major problems,'' he said.
Waldman said that as soon as he took office, he and fellow board members began working to make peace with the city. "We are also determining exactly how the problems occurred,'' he said.
One challenge Waldman faces is figuring out what happened to the money paid by 180 players who registered for the league's fall season. Although a few players received need-based scholarships, most paid a registration fee ranging between $60 and $95. Waldman said the league, with the help of a certified public accountant is "… currently making sure that we have all our funds that came in recognized.''
"When it comes to the money, as a board we are looking into it all," he said. "We are trying to piece together everything, and I don't have definitive answers.''
On Thursday, Wedmore said she believes the problems resulted from not having one person consistently serve as the Little League's treasurer.
"We saw a few treasurers come and go, and nobody could handle the workload,'' she said. "I am hoping to put this behind me, all of what happened this year. My daughter is still planning to play for the league in the spring. We've spent so much time supporting the league to not stay with it."
Several City Council members, including Jerry Beverland, whose history with Oldsmar's Little League dates to the 1960s, expressed a commitment to keep Little League baseball at Canal Park. "It's important to the city. It's important to this council, and it's important to the kids,'' he said.
However, Mayor Doug Bevis said that because of the league's past actions, the city must exercise caution.
"I don't know any person in their right mind who would enter a business agreement with a business running improperly,'' Bevis said. "We have a responsibility to the taxpayer.''
Bevis said later that he believes a new agreement can be reached before the Little League's 2014 season.
"There will be Little League baseball in one capacity or another in Oldsmar for 2014," he said. "It is now up to the Oldsmar Little League to place a new board that the city is comfortable with and can enter into a partnership moving forward."
The council will meet again on Jan. 7, and Little League baseball is already on the tentative agenda for that meeting.
Piper Castillo can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4163. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters, fax to (727) 445-4119 or mail to the Times, 1130 Cleveland St., Suite 100A, Clearwater, FL 33755.