Hernando commissioners suddenly want to play ball again with the youth and adult athletes who turn open green space into baseball and softball diamonds, soccer pitches, and football fields.
Except team sports come with a price. Keeping sports fields in playable and safe condition is not inexpensive. Fields, serving approximately 6,500 athletic league participants, account for three-quarters of the maintenance and operation costs at county parks.
But, for the second time in two years, commissioners are retreating from trying to charge user fees to help cover those costs. In 2008, a different commission balked at a $20-per-player fee. Last week, after previously approving new hourly fees to use athletic fields to help balance the county budget, commissioners agreed to hold off on the new charges until they could work out something like cheaper fees.
Affordability certainly should be a consideration in a county with a jobless rate of 15 percent, but, it would be a mistake to abandon this idea altogether. Raiding reserves or pillaging the environmental land acquisition program should be off the table. People will pay for a service they consider to have value.
For proof, consider the other information shared with commissioners last week: Cannery members have no problem with their fee increasing 150 percent, there's been little objection to the new boat launch fees, and pet owners don't mind a new fee to use the county dog park.
Commissioners wisely recognize the importance of youth sports. It teaches teamwork, perseverance, sportsmanship and other positive attributes. Also, youth leagues keep children busy during what might be idle time. Nearly everyone had an idea.
Commissioner David Russell resurrected the previously scuttled plan to grab money earmarked for environmental preservation. Forget it.
Commissioner Rose Rocco asked the staff to consider parks and recreation department fundraisers to offset the new expenses. Shouldn't the leagues be doing this?
Commissioner Jim Adkins asked if Hernando could mirror the new, per-athlete fee adopted in Pasco County that charges a reduced rate for children who qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch at school. Worthy of discussion, but Hernando is charging hourly rental fees for fields, not per-player assessments.
Commissioner Jeff Stabins went one better and announced he was donating $500 and helping to form a new nonprofit group to ensure needy kids are not excluded from playing sports due to costs.
I trust the leagues are like-minded. Parents unable to afford the cost of signing up their children should be allowed an opportunity to work off the league dues via volunteer hours. League fundraisers and business sponsorships also will gain importance.
While the new county fees are an inconvenience, they are a necessity and should not be construed as exorbitant.
Here's my math: A one-hour T-ball game with 10 players per side would cost a $15 rental fee including lights. That's 75 cents per player per game, or $15 for a 20-game season if every game was played at night. Throw in preseason practice time and the expense goes up a few dollars more. The daytime adult softball players will be assessed $5 an hour, or 25 cents per person on two, 10-man teams playing an hourlong game. They have no reason to gripe.
Previous electricity charges — which varied by league, but cost $17,000 last season for the First Hernando soccer club at Anderson Snow fields — are now void. That means sports leagues should be removing that overhead expense from the cost passed through to parents. Likewise, leagues will be given credit for in-kind maintenance and field upgrades they perform.
I am not unsympathetic to the parents. My own offspring play youth sports in a neighboring county and I have watched the fees escalate annually.
But I also know parks require upkeep and county revenues continue to decline due to falling property values, a stable tax rate and additional exemptions approved by voters in 2008. (Stabins pointed to his own property tax bill, which is less than half what it was five years ago.)
And while announcing his new Play Ball Hernando initiative, Stabins made an imperative point that should not escape his fellow commissioners:
Those who play should pay.