A group of youth sports volunteers gathered at an East York library meeting room on March 3 to talk strategy, after many groups were blindsided by a small item hidden in the 2012 City of Toronto budget that resulted in tens of thousands of dollars in new permit fees.
The meeting was run by East Toronto city councillors Janet Davis (Ward 31, Beaches-East York), Paula Fletcher (Ward 30, Toronto-Danforth), Mary-Margaret McMahon (Ward 32, Beaches-East York), Mary Fragedakis (Ward 29, Toronto-Danforth) and Shelley Carroll (Ward 33, Don Valley East). About two dozen representatives of a number of community-level, non-profit, volunteer-run youth sports organizations were also present, including East Toronto Baseball, Beaches Lacrosse and Beaches Community Soccer.
The councillors expressed outrage at having to be meeting at all, despite only Carroll and Fletcher having voted against the final budget that included the institution of the new permit fees.
“I want to apologize that we even have to be here,” said Fletcher. “I know you’re all volunteers. What we want to do, together, is try to fix this.”
Davis blamed a compression of the budget timeline as the cause of councillors missing the permit fees when council was voting on the budget in January. Attention at the time was mainly focused on reversing proposed cuts to pools, community centres and the Toronto Public Library.
“Can we agree we are unimpressed with the way the user fees were increased and the lack of consultation?,” she asked.
“I think unimpressed is a little light,” replied Fletcher.
McMahon had previously understood that a review of recreation user fees would be happening later this year. Davis also mentioned she had thought a review would be happening in fall of 2012. However, fees have now been implemented for 2012, with a review expected which may change the fees yet again for 2013.
What those fees are based on, however, nobody could quite answer. Tom Slahta, vice-president of both East Toronto Baseball and the umbrella organization Toronto Baseball, pointed out the rates are supposed to be set on a cost-recovery basis. However, no data exists to clearly illustrate the costs of maintaining each individual sports facility.
“Essentially it’s a tax on youth sports,” he said.
Mary Battaglia, Acting Manager of Parks for Toronto and East York District, confirmed to the group that her department’s budget is not broken down by facility, nor would it be an easy task to do so.
The group was also very concerned about the timing of the new fees. Notice of the fees and the amount of individual permits was only sent out in the past few weeks – or has not yet been received in some cases, such as East Toronto Baseball – despite the fact that most organizations set their fees at meetings in the fall, and for most groups, registration is either well underway or already finished.
Michael Teversham, Director of Operations for Beach Community Soccer, said he didn’t begrudge the city for instituting permit fees, and that he understood that fees may be necessary. His organization is facing roughly $20,000 in new permit fees.
“I do begrudge the way in which it was done. We do not have the ability to pass on these fees now. All our registration is done,” he said.
Although Beach Community Soccer has turned a blind eye to a lack of field maintenance from the city in the past, permit fees will change that, said Teversham.
“If they’re charging us $20,000, our expectations will be high,” he said.
Not only have organizations ignored less than ideal field conditions in the past, volunteers have taken care of maintenance themselves, and often raised money for capital improvements on the fields. A representative from East York Baseball pointed out that his group has invested over $200,000 in new lights and clay for the diamonds at Stan Wadlow Park; the organization is now being billed $53,000 to use those diamonds in 2012. Last year the group paid $0.
David Breech, president of East Toronto Baseball, said he couldn’t believe nobody had noticed the new fees in the budget. He pointed out that his group had negotiated roughly $1 million in improvements to the fields at Ted Reeve Arena through the developers of the residential complex next door; although he hadn’t yet received a bill, he estimates his group’s permit fees will be between $25,000 and $30,000.
Joanne Davidson, Director of Floor Time and Facilities for Beaches Lacrosse, said her organization would have to reduce their permitted hours by 75 per cent to reach a level they could afford. Because of the split of players between box and field lacrosse, it would also be nearly impossible to fairly spread the new fees over all the players in the league.
Davidson pointed out that Beaches Lacrosse uses three dry pads for box lacrosse, two of which are in a state of disrepair. The facilities face a chronic lack of maintenance from the city, to the point of volunteers cleaning the washrooms at a city-owned clubhouse at one of the pads.
“I would assume if the city is going to charge user fees they’re going to at least provide sanitation,” she said.
Battaglia pointed out that despite the new fees, users shouldn’t necessarily expect any improvement or increase in city maintenance of recreation facilities.
“There has not been an increase to my maintenance budget,” she said.
The new fees have already claimed one victim, according to Toronto Baseball president David Black. For the past few years, he has been working with a crew of recruited volunteers to start up a Leslieville baseball league, an area with a number of youth that are in need of subsidized athletic programs. The volunteers were ready to run a league for the first time this year. However, “with the announcement of the fees, they just put up their hands and walked away,” said Black.
Fletcher and Councillor Sarah Doucette (Ward 13, Parkdale-High Park) have a motion at council’s regular meeting today (March 6) to direct the Parks General Manager to look into a relief process for organizations that may have financial difficulty with the new fees, as well as to work out a flexible payment plan, and to develop a protocol for notifying groups in advance of fee changes in the future. The motion can be referred to Executive Committee, which would meet on March 19, which would allow public deputations; if council reaches a two-thirds vote, it can bypass the referral and debate the motion today.
In the meantime, youth sports executive committee members are left trying to decide whether to return to the families that have already registered for teams this year and ask for more money; to cut the number of subsidized spots offered to disadvantaged families; to dig into reserves that may or may not be sufficient to cover the fees; or to simply pack it in and walk away, and leave City Hall to clean up the mess, as one frustrated organizer suggested could happen with some leagues.