The thousands who play youth softball, baseball, soccer and football in the city of St Charles will have to "pay to play" starting Jan. 1.That's when the St. Charles Parks and Recreation Department will charge nonprofits for using park fields.
Fees will range from $10 to $40 per game, to be split by the competing teams, depending on the sport and the specific field. The parks department will charge for games, not practices.
"We were the only park system in the metro area that was not charging something for field usage," said TJ Slattery, president of the parks board.
Due to the recession, the department's property-tax revenue has fallen over three years from $3.3 million to $2.6 million.
The money raised from the new charge will be used to maintain and upgrade athletic fields.
Slattery said it costs $146,000 in materials and another $115,000 in labor every year. The field-usage fee would generate less than 25 percent of that total — or no more than $65,250.
Slattery said there is not a current budget shortfall.
The parks board OK'd the new fee in 2010. Since then, parks officials have notified the many organizations that use the fields.
Slattery said the nine-member board decided early on that it would not ask voters to raise taxes and, instead, chose the option of the new fee. A tax-hike proposal would have asked city residents who don't use the parks to pay more to maintain the fields, he said. The department has not asked voters to raise the maximum levy in more than 20 years.
The new charge doesn't sit well with long-time St. Charles resident Gary Whiteside, who called me last week. Whiteside had pleaded with the parks board to find another way to solve its revenue problems.
"I played here as a kid," Whiteside said. "I coached as an adult — softball and soccer. It just weighs on me that they are going to ask these people to pay."
The new fees will be passed on to families, Whiteside said, and that means there will be children whose families can't afford it.
"If they take that away from the kids, then I have a problem with that," he said.
There has to be an alternative, he added. And if there isn't, then at least there should be a greater public awareness of the decision.
"The parks have done all this maintenance all this time," Whiteside said. "Why are they charging these fees now?"
Shawn Manning is president of the St. Charles Junior Baseball and Softball Association, founded 1949. The association asked the parks board to reconsider. It asked for a waiver from the new charge. The parks board denied the request.
Over the summer, 700 children played baseball and softball in St. Charles, Manning said. Roughly 68 percent of those families live in the city, which means they already pay taxes to support the parks, Manning said.
The nonprofit association offered to do a park maintenance project in exchange for not paying the field-usage fee, Manning said. The parks board said no.
The new cost will be passed along to families, he said.
"We're not happy with the decision," Manning said. "We are taking a wait and see approach. They have promised various improvements. They haven't said what they will improve."
On Friday afternoon I read the minutes from many of the 2011 parks board meetings. I was hoping to find a summary of the discussion on the new policy.
What I found most shocking was the $303,000 price tag for the new public rest room in Frontier Park, which should open soon.
Yes, said Maralee Britton, parks department director, it's a lot of money. The main reason the 30-foot by 50-foot rest room costs so much is because it's in a floodplain.
The construction funding came from the city's gaming taxes on Ameristar. The City Council wanted the rest room built and gave the funds to the parks department to build it. But ultimately it was the parks board's decision.
The irony does not escape me that the board is asking youth sports nonprofits for more money at the same time it's building a new rest room to the tune of $300,000.
Keep in mind, Britton reminds me, St. Charles was the only parks department in the St. Louis area not charging for field use.
But I wonder: How many of those other departments also had an extra $300,000 for a rest room?
Maybe the department could avoid the new fee and, instead, sell naming rights to the rest room. Or maybe it could make the toilets revenue producers. You know, pay to play.
Seriously, I have an even better idea. Throughout the summer, various organizations rent Frontier Park from the parks department for assorted fundraising festivals and celebrations.
Why doesn't the department host its own fundraiser? A music festival? A 5K run? It seems that just about every other organization is making money off Frontier Park.