Sunday, July 22, 2018
Politics

Hillsborough officials scramble to find money for deteriorating sports fields

TAMPA

Two months ago, Hillsborough County parks officials scrambled to find $350,000 in emergency funds to replace turf on deteriorating sports fields at the Skyway Sports Complex.

This week, they will be asking county finance officials to reinstate a $2.5 million request for ongoing parks maintenance that was rejected in last year’s budget cycle.

Without more money, maintenance of the county’s parks and sports fields is largely dependent on donations and fund raising by the sports leagues that use them — or revenues raised through new or higher usage fees.

The quality and safety of the county’s 233 sports fields — where baseball, softball, football, soccer, and lacrosse are played — was fiercely debated last week by the county’s Parks, Recreation and Conservation Board.

Board members made clear they believe the sports fields will continue to deteriorate without more money from the county or other sources.

"Leadership is expecting us to find ways to cut costs," said board chairman Anthony Sanchez, noting that an amendment proposed to the state Constitution could sharply cut property tax revenues.

Mike Kruger, a parks department manager, estimated the county needs to spend nearly $10 million to fix damage to sports fields and another $2.5 million annually to keep them in top condition.

Board member Scott Powers said he has inspected 10 fields and found "eight fields that right now have unsafe conditions."

One agenda item implied the board was considering recommending that leagues be charged fees to help fill the county’s maintenance coffers. But the idea was quickly rejected.

"It was a misunderstanding," said Parks and Recreation director Rick Valdez.

The parks department is reviewing its program and rental fee schedule, according to Valdez, but he said there is no intention to levy fees on the many sports leagues that use county sports fields.

Existing fees under study are levied on individuals and some groups.

Leagues are only required to sign agreements saying they regularly report their finances to the county and provide background checks, certifications, and training in first aid, CPR techniques, and concussion awareness for their coaches.

The board agreed to meet with all league presidents to discuss ways to raise money for field maintenance. Larger leagues frequently ask for donations to support their events, and often use the money to help maintain fields.

The board also urged the parks department to develop a comprehensive list of maintenance costs and assign someone to track warranties on field-surface installations.

Board member Bill Barrett urged park managers to allow money raised to flow through the coffers of the leagues or the nonprofit Friends of the County Parks and Recreation Inc.

"We don’t want that money to go into the county’s general fund and not benefit our parks," board member Jack Berlin said.

The deteriorating condition of many county sports fields so alarmed the entire board that members urged parks department officials to investigate why its requests for additional maintenance funds were being rejected.

The problems at Skyway arose after parks officials decided initially to replace only a portion of the turf field. Outside portions failed a few years later and the field installation warranty had lapsed, forcing the department to use reserve funds for the repair, board members said.

Barrett demanded that Valdez find which county staff member failed to act before the Skyway warranty lapsed.

"How do we plan to maintain the fields and parks long term?" he asked. "That’s the big problem."

"Are we going to tell them (the County Commission) to stop building fields until we can maintain what we have?" board member Jack Berlin said.

Valdez agreed the county’s parks need more maintenance, but said his department "can’t pick and choose" which parks get taxpayer-funded services while others depend on league support.

"We provide just a base level of maintenance for our sports fields," Valdez said Monday. "Could we do more? Of course. It’s always more effective to do preventive work than emergency repairs."

The parks department’s current operating budget totals $26.6 million, a $1.7-million decrease from last year, with a capital spending budget of $94.7-million.

In addition to sports fields, the county operates 51 recreation centers, seven gymnasiums, seven fitness centers, three skate parks, five off-leash dog parks, 104 non-programmed neighborhood parks, and an equestrian center.

 
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