TAMPA — Coaches for the Westchase Colts spent months trying to find a place to practice for the upcoming football season.
They finally landed two fields at the popular Ed Radice Park off Race Track Road in northwest Hillsborough.
But the Colts will have to spend thousands of dollars to use the fields, even though county taxpayers own the complex.
"We have never had to pay for practice before,'' said Ty Hawkins, athletic director for the youth football program. "In today's world, we do."
The Colts are not paying the county, but a soccer program, Hillsborough County United, which is leasing the park and then subleasing the two fields to the football and cheerleading program.
Discussions are ongoing between the two programs. As of last week, the Colts appeared on the hook for $4,500 for a four-month season.
That's a big hit for families used to covering their costs with a $250 registration fee, and it's not happening just at Ed Radice. Sports programs everywhere are redoing their budgets due to Hillsborough County's decision last year to privatize most of its parks.
In a budget-cutting move, county officials voted to quit paying for park maintenance. They turned the task over to the main leagues that use them.
Those leagues have become the landlords, in effect, passing the cost of upkeep on to their players and anyone else who wants to use the fields. The rent is at their discretion.
"With the way things have been going … people are having to pay some of the freight that they did not have to pay in the past," said John Brill, spokesman for the county's Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department.
The situation at Ed Radice shows how it works. As part of a parks plan approved last October, the county turned over operations of the nine multipurpose fields at Radice to HC United.
The soccer league, in turn, now leases out fields to clubs and teams that want to use them.
Under its agreement with the county, HC United must take care of the grass, clean and stock the restrooms and pick up trash. The league has hired a landscaping company, Turf Keepers of Brandon, to do that part of the work.
Eric Sims, general manager for HC United, said the league's board took bids and voted before signing Turf Keepers. He placed the cost of the contract at $100,000 to $120,000. That's the cost being passed down to other teams and leagues that use the fields, including the 270 players and cheerleaders — ages 4 to 14 — of the Westchase Colts.
"We are just trying to cover our costs,'' Sims said. "We are not trying to make money on people playing."
Brill, of the county parks department, said the county cost to take care of a field was about $1,100 a month, about in line with what HC United is paying Turf Keepers. Brill said the county has no control over what private maintenance companies charge.
Dwayne Sanders, athletic director for 11 years for the Progress Village Panthers, said the increased costs are affecting his program. Rather than fork over nearly $7,000 for maintenance of three baseball fields and their football field, the team decided to spend $2,000 on a lawn mower.
Harold Williams, the 71-year old president of the team, takes care of the mowing. Sanders said parents will be weeding around the fields before the first home game Aug. 23.
"We don't want our field to look shabby so we will do what we have to do,'' he said.
For the parents of the Westchase Colts, the added maintenance charge translates to about $30 per child on top of a $250 registration fee.
To offset some of this expense, the Colts have organized a golf tournament fundraiser and hope to plan other such events. But this is uncharted territory, Hawkins said. And he wonders if the league is getting its money's worth. Despite the summer rains, he has seen field conditions that are a little shoddy.
"For the kind of money we are paying for these fields,'' he said, "I would expect them to be in pristine shape."
Jared Leone can be reached at (813) 269-5314 or firstname.lastname@example.org.