BROOKSVILLE — For the last decade, Bobby McFarland has run the West Hernando Cougars youth football and cheerleading program, introducing hundreds of youngsters to the healthy, competitive activities.
But the future is in doubt for the Cougars, which is among the oldest and largest leagues in the county.
"They've displaced 250 kids,'' McFarland said this week.
"They" is the Hernando County Parks and Recreation Department.
On Feb. 24, the county signed operation of the Delta Woods Park concession over to a different league after McFarland's program had run it and used the fields there for the last several years. This year, the Spring Hill Athletic Association will operate the stand and use the fields for a possible expansion of its league.
McFarland said the county has no reason to push his youngsters out of the park. He has paid everything he owed the county, he said, and has a history of operating a quality program that boys and girls ages 5 to 15 have flocked to for years.
He said he felt his program was pushed out in favor of another that already had the advantage of playing on regulation-size fields at Veterans Memorial Park. The fields at Delta Woods are 20 yards short of the required 120 yards, which has been a bone of contention for McFarland for years.
County officials have a far different viewpoint of the dispute.
McFarland violated his agreement with the county, according to Harry Johnson, the county's recreation coordinator.
The five-month agreement to run the Delta Woods Park concession ran from July 1 to Nov. 30. While the Recreation Department sent invoices to the Cougars throughout the time of that agreement, McFarland didn't pay, Johnson said.
In mid November, Johnson emailed McFarland, reminding him he needed to pay the bill for use of the concession stand and the field lights, and also clean and clear out the stand. McFarland wrote back that the concession stand "will be cleaned out over this coming weekend ... (and) a check for the (concession stand) was sent out to you guys as of this morning.''
The check never arrived, Johnson said. The concession stand was not cleaned.
In early January, a county parks employee reported to Johnson that the pest control worker who had come by to treat the building said "the concession stand was the worst he's ever seen, and if the Health Department saw it, they would probably shut it down.''
Other reports on the condition of the stand indicated grease standing in the fryers and coating the floor, filthy counters and appliances and infestations by German roaches and black widow spiders.
In addition to numerous phone reminders, in early February Johnson said he sent McFarland a certified letter again, outlining the actions he needed to take to close out the concession agreement. He said he called McFarland to tell him it was coming and what it said.
McFarland never accepted the mail or picked it up at the post office, according to Johnson.
Also on Feb. 1, Johnson wrote an email to McFarland warning of what was to come.
"Please use this weekend to remove all items from concession stand and get it cleaned up," he wrote.
"I am setting up a new lease with a concession vendor and cannot turn it over to them in the condition it is in and with a set of keys out there.''
Johnson said McFarland paid the $2,600 he owed on the concession stand and a portion of the $450 in light fees on Tuesday, three months after his agreement with the county ended and several days after the new agreement between the county and Spring Hill Athletic Association was finalized.
There remains a dispute over $160 in light fees.
Acknowledging that he fell behind this year, McFarland argued that he has paid his bills to the county on time every other year. When he finally had the money to pay, he said, he tried to get his check to Johnson, but was put off, something Johnson said is not the case.
As for cleaning out the concession stand, McFarland said the county had changed the locks on the gate that allowed him access.
"It's almost like we were set up to fail,'' McFarland said.
He spoke about community pride in the 50-year-old league, its popular football team and the state-recognized cheerleading program.
"I just need to know that they still have a place to play,'' McFarland said.
"We're the largest group, and we've had the worst facilities, yet we've worked in good faith with the county for years but have been treated ... as second-rate citizens,'' he said.
Johnson said what happens from here is up in the air. He said both leagues can begin their signup process for players, and if the Cougars have enough youngsters, the county would work to find someplace for the league to practice and play.
But he also said he would not give the league back the Delta Woods concession stand, even if the Spring Hill Athletic Association decides not to operate it at some point in the future.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.