State park user fees could be deal-breaker for youth sports

A potential change in what youth groups are being asked to pay for the right to use state-controlled sports fields is alarming some Dorchester organizations staring down the spring season and prompting elected officials to consider ways to intervene.

Organizations like All Dorchester Sports and Leadership (ADSL), which, among other things, manages girls softball leagues, often rely on the use of state parks, which are managed by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).

Local officials including state Rep. Dan Hunt, state Rep. Dan Cullinane, former state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, and current state Sen. Nick Collins, had secured what was effectively a fee waiver year over year for youth groups like the ADSL girls softball team, which plays and practices on the ballfields at Toohig Park on Gallivan Boulevard.

This year, Hunt said, that arrangement appears to have changed. And the difference could mean thousands of dollars in new costs that ADSL leaders say would be prohibitive.

“They’re not raising the rates this year, but they are actually charging them the full price,” said Rep. Hunt, although the youth group still is not sure what the final damage might be.

The softball team plays an eight-week season with four divisions, using the field almost every day, according to ADSL executive director Candice Gartley. Toohig Park has become central to the league’s play, she said, but moving to more affordable city-managed Town Field may be necessary.
“It has an enormous impact,” Gartley said. The popular program managed by the non-profit has “grown exponentially over the past few years,” she said, to 224 girls.

“The softball supports our other programs for the community that are underserved and under-resourced, so we rely pretty heavily on the revenue from this particular program,” said Gartley.

The DCR website lists seasonal rentals for fields at $200 for one 2-3 hour block per field, per day for the season, and after the 2-3 hour block is up, $40 per hour per field, per day for the season.

This could run the program upwards of $12,000 for the season, depending on how the hourly uses are calculated. Last year they were never invoiced despite reaching out to DCR, Gartley said, and one year they were assessed only $200.

An agency spokesperson said, “The DCR looks forward to reviewing the All Dorchester Sports and Leadership (ADSL) Girls’ Softball Program’s application once submitted to the agency.”

DCR did not comment on any policy change aside from noting that the fees themselves were not raised. It is unclear what the specific outcome will be for ADSL, but in response to multiple Reporter inquiries, DCR said organizations can still qualify for the waived $200 seasonal fees with documentation of non-for-profit status and providing free or low cost programs. Gartley is waiting to see what the department levies once their application is received. They just cannot swing the full potential charges, she said. Even the base $60 participation fees are barely affordable for some families.

“Sixteen percent of our budget is from city grants that come in from year to year,” Gartley said. “The other 84 percent, I have to beat the bushes, beg, raise the money, write grants, go out and meet people to try for donations.

It takes most of my time just to keep the door open. To come up with that additional money… it’s not a drop in the bucket.”
Elected officials are on the receiving end of calls about the potential change, but the DCR’s wobbly finances have become an annual negotiation on the state level.

In the House’s 2018 budget, Hunt attempted to amend the section dealing with DCR’s revenue retention. DCR is allowed to keep 80 percent of the revenue it raises, which was expected to be about $25 million, but Hunt’s amendment would have mandated “that youth permit fees shall not be included” among the retained revenue fees. This would have effectively discouraged charging youth sports for the purpose of generating more revenue.

Hunt plans to refile the amendment this budget season. Okaying the change to DCR’s finances was intended to let them keep more of their fees in parking lots, roadways, and the like, he said. “It was not intended for DCR to then go raise revenue on youth sports.”

Other local teams also rely reserving state land. Dorchester Youth Soccer uses the Pope John Paul II soccer fields, which DCR controls, so they, too, are eyeing a new potential financial burden. Ventura Park in Cullinane’s district is also used for Little League baseball.

“The calls that we’re getting are parents and volunteers with the leagues that do not want to see costs go up and then passed on to families that are just trying to have their kids participate in little league,” he said. “It’s a seemingly annual conversation we’re having about DCR fees. I hope that we can work with the administration and DCR and each other to come to a solution to this.”

Collins, whose Senate district includes the Hunt and Cullinane House districts, said the move flies in the face of the best use for the parks. It should open a conversation about potential legislation and the allocation of DCR resources, he said.

“Being the steward of so many roads is costly for them,” he said, highlighting the year long and costly effort to maintain or overhaul Morrissey Boulevard. Parks all over the state need DCR attention, Collins said. “We don’t want that to be secondary to the roads. Given the bandwidth of [Mass]DOT, maybe they should be taking it on.”