Paying to Play
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Paying to Play

New fees to use City fields have taken Toronto's youth-sports programs by surprise. Tuesday night, players, coaches, and organizers got a chance to share their concerns with a handful of city councillors.

Photo by {a href="[email protected]/2916512474/"}Shaun Greiner{/a}.

David Breech is the president of the East Toronto Baseball Association, a league that organizes baseball for some 300 of the city’s kids. Earlier this year, when he received a package in the mail containing his annual permit for the league’s use of the city’s ballparks, he noticed something unusual.

“Permit fee is non-refundable,” read one of the documents included in the package. And it was for more than $32,000.

The cost of the permit in years past, Breech says, was nothing.

Later, Breech received a letter from the City explaining that fees were now being charged for the use of outdoor fields. The bill was dated March 6; the letter of explanation, March 13.

Set out in the City’s 2012 budget, the new user fees seem to have been largely overlooked by many councillors in the excitement of reversing proposed service cuts during council debates in January. The local children’s sports teams that rely on the use of City parks were certainly caught off-guard; many had already registered collected money from summer players by the time they learned of the new fees. Tuesday night, players, coaches, and organizers were offered a chance to weigh in at City Hall during two hours of unofficial deputations arranged by a handful of city councillors.

“We missed it. I admit that,” says Sarah Doucette (Ward 13, Parkdale-High Park) of council’s failure to debate the fees at budget time. While Doucette says that fees may be necessary in the future, she feels it is too late to ask leagues to come up with extra money this year on short notice. “The last thing I want to see is a group fold and have to shut down [so] kids can’t play sports because we imposed fees which they weren’t aware of,” she says.

Richard Helfrich and Ron Johnson both volunteer with Annette Baseball and Toronto Playgrounds Baseball. They’re reluctant to pay fees to use fields they say they already maintain themselves.

“We’ll show up there with rakes and shovels and we’ll make it smooth so that the ball isn’t hopping all over the place and going into the face of one of the kids,” Helfrich says.

“People are out grooming fields, cutting grass in some cases,” Johnson adds. “Plus you’re clearing the dog poop, picking up the needles.”

Because almost everyone involved is a volunteer, Annette Baseball manages to organize a full four-month season for 350 kids, Helfrich says, on a budget of just $40,000. This money is paid partly by the players’ families and partly by sponsors. He says not all the kids can afford to pay the house league’s fees, but that no one is turned away.

“Nobody’s told: ‘No, you can’t play,’” Helfrich says. “But with these fees, something’s got to give.”

At its next meeting, on April 10 and 11, city council will discuss whether or not to implement relief measures for groups unable to pay the fees this year.

A vote on that measure will take a simple majority; it would take a two-thirds vote by councillors to reopen the budget in order to reverse the use-fee system more broadly. Far fewer councillors turned out to hear Tuesday night’s deputations. Fourteen showed up (budget committee chair Mike Del Grande [Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt] and Mayor Rob Ford were not among them), and half a dozen more sent staff.

Even if the fees do remain in place after next week’s council meetings, the money may prove difficult to collect.

“My position is that we won’t pay any fees, quite frankly, and that is the position of some of the other groups,” Breech says.

“To me, it’s a philosophical issue about what is important. Is it important to keep…youth off the street in the summertime, involved in positive programs? I think so, and so do all the volunteers. I don’t know whether the city feels that way or not.”