Youth sports permit fees: shoot first, ask questions later

On March 22 an overwhelming 60 or more volunteer representatives of various youth sports leagues and organizations came together at a forum at Sherbourne Community Centre to discuss the newly implemented outdoor field permit fees for child and youth sports leagues.

These attendees represented almost all of the youth sports leagues in Toronto, from netball to baseball, from lacrosse to cricket.

Their message was clear: they cannot afford to pay these new field permit fees this year.

The reason? Registration has, for the most part, taken place and they are not able to ask their users for more money. This proves to be a significant challenge for these organizations which have been hit with bills of upwards of $20,000 in some cases.

Also attending the evening meeting were City of Toronto staff, Toronto Sports Council chair Karen Pitre, and city councillors Paula Fletcher, Mary Fragedakis, and Janet Davis.

The main purpose of the meeting was for groups to suggest how to best implement these fees so they can present it to council on April 10. This seemed to be a backwards process to many, if not all, of the volunteers present.

In December of 2011 the budget was launched and on Jan. 17 it was adopted. On Feb. 8 City staff sent out a letter to the groups about the increase in permit fees.

“I absolutely acknowledge the timing wasn’t good,” said Graham Mitchell, Toronto City Council Decisions.  “A much better process would have been to provide groups earlier notice, but we are bound by a set of protocols related to budget proposals.” What that means is that because some proposals don’t get accepted, divulging them ahead of time is not part of such protocol.

On March 4, a motion was put forth to Council to have the staff take another look at the process of implementation of the 2012 fees. It was adopted unanimously.

Three recommendations will be presented by staff at the April 10 Council meeting when they report back: a way to offer financial relief to groups who cannot afford the fees, how to establish flexible payment plans, and the development of a protocol that better notifies users of key changes in the future.

“Council has clearly said that ‘we don’t want these fees to cause some groups to fold, and therefore have a bunch of kids who don’t have the opportunity to play ball’,” said Mitchell.

In a case where there is a financial need there should be a process for providing relief. Groups must demonstrate that all efforts have been made to raise the funds to pay the fees and that they indeed cannot pay the fees.

The frustration amongst the sports organizations also stems from the lack of consultation prior to even suggesting such fees be put in place.

“You’ve put a tax on children which we don’t think is necessary and you have no data to support it,” said Dennis, who didn’t want to give his last name.

When asked what the cost recovery will be after implementing the new fees, Richard Ubbens, Director of Parks, Forestry and Recreation, said that “It’s not a full cost recovery. We do not have full cost recovery mechanisms to calculate all those costs yet in place. The city is beginning to undertake those processes as part of the financial stream of things, but we are not there yet.”

The revenue expectation is 1.5 million dollars from the implementation of the new fees, based on last year’s permit hours, but he admits that figure could change because they have not yet gone through a full season.

So why were these organizations, run by volunteers, not consulted prior to such a drastic move?

Some of these leagues even invest their own money in field maintenance, such as cleaning change rooms, replacing light bulbs and trucking in clay.

“There wasn’t a collective voice in making this decision,” said David Breech, President of the East Toronto Baseball organization.

“Rather than having a marginalized tax increase across the board to provide services for people, we’re going to target vulnerable groups and see if we can siphon some money out of them, very different from a vision where everyone participates in the process,” said Breech.

As for the suggestions coming from the groups present, many would like to see the new fees go towards field maintenance.

But city staff has made it clear that the maintenance budget has not seen any new money, and with most of the leagues investing thousands of dollars already in maintaining their playing facilities, the new fees come as a sort of “slap in the face”, as one of the attendees put it.

One volunteer suggested that they be given a credit for investing their own money.

Others were concerned of what the social implications would be by such a move. One attendee pointed out that targeting the 30,000 or so members of the various leagues along with approximately 5,000 volunteers may cause many to cease participating in the programs, which may then result in an increasing cost for health and policing.

“People need to the understand the value that the volunteers bring to the system,” said Pitre. “Rob Ford took the tax off cars and put it on kids.”

So what would happened if none of the groups paid the fees? Mitchell said the staff could go back to Council on April 10 and say that the bottom line is that none of the groups can pay the 2012 fees in which case they may be given different directions.

Ward 30 councillor Paula Fletcher urged the volunteers to contact their local councillor and make their voices heard. The budget item can be reopened if two thirds of council vote in favor, which she admitted was unlikely, but possible.

Joanne Davidson, Director of Floor Time and Facilities at Beaches Lacrosse said she’s not opposed to the fees at all. “We are not against user fees, it’s the timing that’s extremely awkward for us,” she said, adding that the league cannot afford them at this point.

“We’re hoping the fees get waived for 2012,” said Davidson. She said trying to fundraise for the league’s bill for $20,000 for dry-pads will be extremely difficult.

A town hall meeting has been set for April 3 at 7 p.m. in City Hall council chambers to allow the sports associations to express their concerns to council. Everyone who signs up will have three minutes to speak. For more information, contact Kathleen MacKenzie at kmacken@toronto.ca or at 416-392-4035. Everyone is welcome to the meeting.

A petition is posted on the Toronto Sports Council website at www.torontosportscouncil.ca. It asks to have the city defer the fees for 2012 and allow organizations to build the new fees into their registration costs for next year.


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