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Parents, coaches fume over surprise playing field fees

Six-year-old Ibrahim Aden, player with Ifyes soccer club in Etobicoke, takes his turn to talk while attending, along with his team, a public meeting a Toronto City Hall to discuss the impact of new user fees the city is imposing for city owned sport fields.

Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Parents and volunteers who run summer sports leagues for children are responding with rising anger to new fees for using Toronto's playing fields – fees that have already surprised leagues with bills that run into the thousands.

The new hourly charges were imposed as part of the 2012 budget, and passed city council without debate, overlooked by many in the pages of a new user-fee schedule as councillors battled over bus routes and library hours.

Organizers who spoke to The Globe and Mail said they had no warning of the new charges, which began to arrive long after they set budgets, reserved playing fields and began collecting this year's registration fees. They hope to persuade city council to reconsider, or at least grant a one-year reprieve, although this would mean giving up $1.5-million in revenues already booked for the current year's budget.

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For some sports, such as baseball, another principle is at stake: they balk at being charged $6 to $12 an hour to use city fields that in many cases they already pour money and volunteer hours into maintaining.

Up until now, the city has not charged fees to children's and youth leagues.

Andrew Pace, president of the East York Baseball Association, said his organization got a bill of more than $53,000. On Tuesday evening, he joined about 200 volunteers, parents and players at city hall for a special meeting aimed at persuading councillors to rethink the charges when council considers the issue next week.

"At this point, we have no way to raise that kind of money," Mr. Pace said. "It's not like we have $53,000 just lying around."

To add insult to injury, the local baseball league raised nearly $200,000 from Major League Baseball and the Toronto Blue Jays last year to add lights at a field for which they are now being charged a premium.

Across the city, the stories are the same, as youth leagues for sports such as soccer, lacrosse and cricket scramble to react to the new charges. Depending on the sport and the level of play, organizers estimate they will have to hike fees anywhere from $15 to $100 for house league players to more than $100 for members of competitive travel teams.

But they say with fees already in for this season, there is no way volunteers and coaches can be expected to collect extra now.

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"You can impose any fee you want. We won't be paying them," Andy Doudoumis, president of the North York Soccer Association, told councillors. His group represents 20 clubs in North York, which together are being asked to pay $300,000 in new charges.

The city expects the new fees to generate $1.5-million in new revenue this year.

Councillor Paula Fletcher, who helped organize the ad hoc meeting attended by 14 mostly left-leaning and independent councillors, said the fees did not get a proper airing before they took effect. "I'm hoping the majority of councillors will say we didn't realize the impact. We have to rethink this for 2012."

Councillor David Shiner, the only member of the mayor's executive committee to attend, expects council to find a solution next week when staff present options for helping groups offset the charges. "We've all seen it is causing some problems, and we are looking for ways to resolve them," he said.

On the flipside, Mr. Shiner said there is merit to charging all groups to use playing fields to prevent clubs from booking free field time that they do not use. "I think there is a much greater issue. It's how do you free up the fields," he said. "There are a number of clubs that are taking up sports fields that they don't use. That limits the amount of time for others that want those fields."

Many organizers worry the new charges will put summer sports out of the reach of families who can't afford camps or vacations over the summer.

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Abdirahman Aden, a coach for Initiative for Youth Excellence, which teaches soccer and track and field to 120 kids, said he is baffled by the fees. "We're doing the city's job by keeping these kids off the streets and busy," he said. "Not everyone can pay these extra fees."

Henry Dennis, a 15-year-old who plays with the Scarborough Stingers AAA baseball team, described the fees as a tax on kids. "We just want to play baseball ... And these taxes that are being put on us stop kids just like me from doing what they do," he said.

Organizers also expressed frustration that there is no acknowledgement of the upgrades many groups have done over the years to fields that receive minimal attention from the city.

"We need to sit down and discuss this," said Stephen Davis, president of North York Baseball. He estimates his organization has spent $85,000 on upgrades over the past five years in addition to regular grooming of the diamond, cutting the infield and covering the cost of new clay.

Mr. Shiner said he has heard complaints from groups that devote volunteer time and money to improvements and feel they should get something in return. If the city is charging fees, he said maintenance standards will have to be re-examined.



With a report from Tamara Baluja

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