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Ball fields becoming battlefield

City officials will accelerate plans to expand the Countryside Sports Complex, even though they say the county won't contribute its fair share.

Clearwater City Council members said they will partner with the city of Safety Harbor to build six new athletic fields across from Countryside High School on McMullen-Booth Road.

The current four-field facility is severely overcrowded, users and city recreation staff think, and in need of an overhaul.

But since city residents account for only one-third of the users, City Manager Bill Horne said other governments should share the project costs, which have been estimated at around $3-million to build and $225,000 a year to operate.

Safety Harbor officials have agreed to contribute, but County Administrator Steve Spratt said the county would not pay for operating costs, though its residents account for 27 percent of the fields' users. The county, he said, has never paid to help run a city recreation facility.

City Parks and Recreation director Kevin Dunbar said if the county won't participate, unincorporated residents could be asked to pay premium user fees.

City officials say the county is neglecting its residents.

"We are tired of being the north county's active recreation department," Mayor Brian Aungst said during a recent council meeting. "We bear the burden of the cost and the other people get off without paying for it."

Council members agreed at a meeting last week to press forward with the project without the county's cooperation. They remained hopeful the county will come around, but forceful in their wishes: The county needs to pay its share.

"The cities are maxing out on the facilities and the usage," council member Carlen Petersen said. "At some point, the county has to get involved."

County Commissioner Karen Williams Seel said the county is building recreation relationships. In Dunedin, the county contributed $500,000 toward a citywide recreation partnership, she said. The county also offered grants across the county for recreation improvements.

In this case, the county has pledged $700,000 toward the construction of the new Countryside complex, the largest single recreation contribution to a city government in the county's history.

"We haven't been sitting idly by the side," Seel said. "And we're not stopping here."

Safety Harbor Leisure Services director Matthew Spoor said his city continues to speak with Clearwater officials about the field expansion. Capital and operating funds already are budgeted, he said. He said Safety Harbor is not part of the discussions with the county.

There is no timetable for construction and the city's only cost estimate is outdated, said Dunbar, Clearwater's recreation director. Dunbar said the cities are working toward creating a field design. Clearwater officials will ask county officials to be involved throughout the entire process.

"If they truly have concerns about the costs, they'll get their answers during this process," Dunbar said. "Hopefully, the numbers will come into focus."

That leaves ample time for compromise, said Steve Heller, president of the Countryside Lightning Soccer Association, the soccer group that uses the McMullen-Booth complex.

"We need a permanent home," Heller said. "We are very much interested in hopefully a three-way partnership in this program because that reflects what our membership is. But ultimately, we just want to see these fields built."

WHO PLAYS AT THE COUNTRYSIDE SPORTS COMPLEX

+ Around 1,500 children participate in soccer, football and cheerleading at the complex's four fields.

+ About 34 percent are from Clearwater.

+ 27 percent are from unincorporated parts of Pinellas County.

+ 26 percent are from Safety Harbor.

+ 9 percent are from other incorporated parts of Pinellas County.

+ 4 percent are from outside Pinellas County.

Source: City of Clearwater

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