Free play in peril at county's fields

As private clubs take over upkeep in a tax crunch, they limit access.

By Bill Varian, Times Staff Writer
Published February 15, 2008

TAMPA - Hillsborough County taxpayers have spent tens of millions dollars in the past decade to build new soccer and other ball fields.

Those same taxpayers may soon have to pay private youth sports leagues and clubs for the privilege to use them, if they are allowed at all.

County parks' officials say they are ceding control to private leagues as an outgrowth of state-mandated property tax reductions that are forcing them to rely on those clubs to keep up the parks.

As a tradeoff, the county is giving league operators greater control over who uses its fields, when, and, coming soon, at what cost.

The outcome, some say, is a de facto privatization of the county parks system.

"This is a position the county has had to take because of tax reform," said Mark Thornton, director of its Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department. "It's something we weren't really in favor of, but we had no choice."

For years, the county has held agreements with sports leagues that give them priority use of some fields. In several county parks, league officials also schedule others who may wish to use a field.

It's a fairly common practice across the country, though it does at times result in conflicts and resentments at busier parks between those who control access and others who want it.

But league officials need to be able to schedule games and practices. In turn, league volunteers and parents serve as coaches, man concession booths and hire referees, taking a financial burden from the county.

Then came the tax cut measures passed by legislators last year in response to a taxpayer revolt to towering increases. As one response, Hillsborough commissioners laid off parks maintenance workers and asked the leagues to take on their work as well.

Suddenly, league operators began paying closer attention to who was slipping onto fields when the league wasn't using them, and whether other playing surfaces were being overrun. And now county officials are negotiating with them to allow leagues to charge other users to offset the cost of their maintenance.

"It's only going to get worse," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman, alluding to a second wave of property tax cuts passed by voters last month.

Already there are signs of tension.

Last week, a group of men say representatives of the Hillsborough County United Soccer Club called sheriff's deputies on them for playing soccer without permission on an unused field at the Ed Radice Sports Complex in Northwest Hillsborough County.

The men say they have played at Radice on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the better part of four years without incident, steering clear of youth league players. But in recent months, they say, league officials have turned the lights off on them mid play. Then Thursday, a deputy arrived.

"I'm a taxpayer," said one of the men, Odessa resident Ozzie Feo, a marketing director for Tampa Bay Magazine, which recognized Radice last year as the best public sports complex in the county. "I feel like my rights are being violated. I live in the neighborhood. I think it's ridiculous I can't use those fields."

"It's a public sports complex," said one of the other men, Dean Polizzi, also of Odessa. "They're not private fields."

Eric Sims, general manager of Hillsborough United, said no one from the league called law enforcement to have the men ejected from Radice. The officer was already at the field, he said.

However, he acknowledged that the league has grown more sensitive about who else is using the fields and how often. His club estimates it will have to spend more than $100,000 this year to maintain the soccer fields at Radice.

The club includes roughly 2,000 children, ages 4-19, who pay anywhere from $150 to $700 to participate. Adding more money to the costs is likely to exclude some children.

"We want as many people to play soccer as we can. But the fields are overused," Sims said. "And we're paying for the maintenance of these fields."