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Oldsmar: Pay for county kids to play

Every week hundreds of children scramble up and down the manicured athletic fields of Canal Park. No one asks the young athletes where they live. The gates of the city park are open to all.

But fewer than half of those children are city residents. The majority of the children who use the park's Little League fields come from unincorporated areas outside Oldsmar.

The Little League program has quadrupled in size in recent years and is continuing to expand. Now, the four fields the city built in Canal Park for Little League are not enough.

This week, city officials raised the question of whether the county should help pay for more fields since so many county children use them. Of the Oldsmar Little League's 750 children, only about 40 percent live in Oldsmar, said Larry Liebling, a parent active in the program.

"Although the fields belong to Oldsmar, the kids who use the fields are not just Oldsmar residents, they are also county residents," Liebling said. "County and Oldsmar children stand side by side on those fields."

The city has spent millions in recent years upgrading Canal Park for the Little League and other athletic programs. But city officials say they don't have money to pay for the four new fields needed to accommodate the growth of the Little League program.

The Little League took on the challenge of raising $225,000 to build four new baseball fields at Canal Park. If the drive is successful, $225,000 will probably pay half of the cost of the fields, said Little League president Gary Papa. To date, the group has raised about $70,000.

This week, Oldsmar Mayor Jerry Beverland said if the county would agree to match whatever the Little League raises, he would ask the city to match the county donation.

"I think it would be a shame if the county couldn't at least match what they've done," Beverland said. "It's not helping the city of Oldsmar. It's helping the kids, the boys and girls of East Lake and Palm Harbor."

No one wants to begin differentiating between county and city children, Beverland said.

"We need to continue to serve the kids," he said. "On the other hand, the county needs to sit back and think about what Oldsmar is doing."

City Council member Jeff Sandler points out that if all the non-Oldsmar children were removed from the athletic programs at Canal Park, the existing facilities would be adequate.

"Basically, the tax dollars that went to building Canal Park are being used to support residents of Pinellas County," Sandler said. "I don't think you can debate that a whole lot."

County Administrator Fred Marquis said the city has purview over who uses its fields and should consider charging a user fee to non-city residents.

"That's the way it should be if city tax dollars are building the facilities," Marquis said.

The county cannot give money to the city or the Little League for recreation, he said. The only way the county can support organized recreation is if a special taxing district is created, such as the one in Palm Harbor. East Lake voters have never supported the creation of such a district.

"Unfortunately, the East Lake area has voted it down three times," Marquis said.

Chuck Schult, president of the Citizen's Action League, a tax watchdog group of county residents, said he sympathizes with Oldsmar residents.

"The city taxpayers are subsidizing these people who live in the county," Schult said.

For many county residents in East Lake Woodlands, the Oldsmar Little League in Canal Park is more convenient than the program offered at the Upper Pinellas Youth Sports Complex off Keystone Road, Schult said.

"I can understand the East Lake Woodlands kids want to go out the gate and across the street," he said. Canal Park is actually across the street from the county subdivision.

On the other hand, Schult said, if he were a county commissioner he would not agree to donate toward fields at Canal Park. Such a move could open the floodgates for other cities, Schult said.

The problem, he said, is that the county has to take a more active role in providing recreation.

The County Commission is exploring its role in recreation, said commission Chairman Robert Stewart. Members might decide some time to sign contracts with other agencies to provide organized recreation. But Stewart said he doesn't see the county helping to build fields in Canal Park.

"I don't see how the county could give a positive response to the city's request," he said. "There are 24 separate municipalities who would be queued up to come into the commission chambers asking for their fair share."