Barrington is the only town charging fees for youth fields

Research into all Rhode Island’s cities and towns shows only one charges fees for children to play sports

By Scott Pickering
Posted 2/27/19

Only one Rhode Island municipality charges its youth sports leagues a fee to use public playing fields. Only Barrington.

In every other Rhode Island community, the youth soccer, lacrosse, …

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Barrington is the only town charging fees for youth fields

Research into all Rhode Island’s cities and towns shows only one charges fees for children to play sports

Posted

Only one Rhode Island municipality charges its youth sports leagues a fee to use public playing fields. Only Barrington.

In every other Rhode Island community, the youth soccer, lacrosse, baseball, softball and football programs pay nothing to use town or city-owned fields. In many cases, the volunteer organizations provide sweat equity or modest field maintenance, like raking infields and lining soccer fields, but they pay nothing as long as a majority of their participants are residents in that community.

In response to the Town of Barrington’s proposal to more than triple the fees it currently collects from sports programs, the Barrington Times researched how cities and towns throughout Rhode Island handle field maintenance and usage. The overwhelming evidence shows Barrington is the only community that consistently requires its youth sports programs to pay a fee.

There are 39 Rhode Island municipalities with some form of recreation program. Of the 38 communities other than Barrington, 28 recreation directors confirmed that their leagues pay nothing to use the town or school facilities (10 other recreation directors did not respond to multiple requests for information). In most cases, recreation leaders were surprised to learn about Barrington’s fee program.

Among the surprised was Rex Eberly, who is both superintendent of the South Kingstown parks and recreation department and chairman of the Rhode Island Recreation and Parks Association. “I am not aware of any town in the state that charges fees for its local leagues,” he said. Told about the situation in Barrington, he was surprised and asked if the town still has a recreation director. Barrington has not been active in the association recently, he said.

Other recreation leaders said they want to encourage children and teens to be active and play sports, so they try to not place obstacles in the way of that.

In Bristol, assistant recreation director Tim Shaw said, “It’s all based on how the town values recreation … and obviously in Bristol, this goes back generations. We think that getting 300-plus kids playing soccer on any given day and 200-plus playing baseball or softball is a benefit to our residents and town.”

In Portsmouth, recreation director Wendy Bulk said the town proposed a small $5/player fee several years ago. “People showed up at the meeting yelling and screaming. It was awful, and the town backed off … So no Portsmouth taxpayers’ child will pay to play on town property.”

In Westerly, recreation director Paul Duffy said, “The leagues are providing a service to the town by administering and operating these leagues for the benefit of Westerly residents.”

In Hopkinton, a recreation leader said, “We’re all about making our recreation activities affordable and accessible to people. That’s crazy to charge your families … That’s what you want; you want people coming out and using your fields.”

In West Greenwich, the town actually has a line item in its annual budget to support the town leagues; baseball and soccer programs get about $1,000 in town funding, and in exchange, the volunteers maintain their own fields.

In Johnston, the sports leagues and the town have an equally cooperative relationship. The leagues periodically make contributions toward fertilizer. The football program donates $1,000 annually because the town picks up trash at their fields. “It’s always a give and take,” said the recreation director.

In many cities and towns, league volunteers contribute to the upkeep of the public facilities. Many leagues line and rake their own fields. In some cases, the leagues periodically make capital investments, like an irrigation system for the Middletown soccer fields, or a new dugout in Pawtucket.

A different deal in Barrington

In Barrington, the sports leagues and the town struck a different deal. Fourteen years ago, Barrington implemented a fee system, charging each league $10 per registered player, for that league’s primary season (baseball in the spring; soccer and football in the fall). The money was to be set aside in a special account dedicated to facilities improvements, but that account has since been dissolved. The money now empties into the town’s general fund.

At the same time the fees were implemented, the town directed revenue from a cell tower lease at Barrington High School — $25,000 annually — into the same dedicated account. That also has been dissolved, with the revenue going into the town’s general fund.

Last year, Barrington Town Manager Jim Cunha began talking to the town’s recreation commission about how the public works department is stretched too thin trying to maintain athletic fields. In August, he told the commission he wants to shift maintenance responsibilities away from the town and onto the sports leagues who are using the fields. The commission was generally supportive of the idea and voted unanimously “in favor of the concept of transferring grooming and lining cost to the leagues,” according to commission minutes.

Through a series of additional meetings, including workshops with the leagues and the Barrington Town Council, Mr. Cunha unveiled his plan to recoup nearly 50 percent of all field maintenance costs from the sports leagues. 

At a meeting earlier this month, Mr. Cunha reported that it costs $162,000 to maintain outdoor sports facilities annually. His proposal would increase field-fee revenues from about $20,000 annually, to more than $71,000 annually. Fees would increase from $10/player/year, to $25/player/season. They would affect all soccer, lacrosse, baseball, softball and football activities in town.

Separately, the Barrington School Department shifts about $178,000 annually to the town in exchange for public works groundskeeping at the schools. Mr. Cunha and town officials have never provided full details about how that school money is allocated or accounted for.

Outsiders pay to use fields

In all municipalities studied, outside organizations pay fees to use the public facilities. These include private summer camps or training academies; elite sports programs like AAU; men’s or women’s sports teams that draw players from a wide area; and organizations that host money-raising tournaments.

However, in many of those towns, if a team or league can demonstrate at least 51 percent residency, the field fees do not apply. So even a men’s softball team or women’s soccer team does not pay fees if they are comprised of mostly taxpayers from that particular community. In other municipalities, any nonprofit is granted free access to fields.

When the Barrington Recreation Commission voted in favor of the “concept” of having sports leagues contribute more to the town last August, board member Geoff Turner told the group that Barrington charges too little in field fees. An AAU baseball coach, he mentioned East Providence and Pawtucket as comparisons, suggesting the town could charge much higher fees than it does currently.

The Barrington Times confirmed with both East Providence and Pawtucket that they charge fees to outside groups like AAU, but they do not charge any fees to their youth athletic programs.

Recreation director Michelle Geremia was asked this week about the town’s research into how other communities handle field fees. “It was it was like comparing apples to oranges to grapefruit,” she said. Told about the Barrington Times research, Ms. Geremia said most of the town’s research was done by an assistant who no longer works for the town. She did not know how that person gathered information. Many towns post field fees on their websites, but those typically apply only to outside groups and organizations; they do not apply to the local town leagues.

Rec. board had bad info?

Recreation commission chairman Mike Seward said this week that he and the rest of the board supported the increase in field fees because the town needs the money.

“Jim Cunha’s trying to run a DPW that has a lot more responsibility than it’s had in the past,” Mr. Seward said. “The town is just overstretched with its manpower.”

Mr. Seward said the recreation commission has talked about Barrington’s “low” field fees for a long time. “We have known for years that the fees that the recreation groups pay the town have been lower than anywhere else. We’ve been talking about this for five or six years. This is nothing new,” he said.

Asked where that information came from, Mr. Seward said DPW has consistently reported that to the recreation department. Told this week that the information is flawed, that Barrington is the only community charging its youth leagues to use the fields, Mr. Seward said, “That’s frankly surprising. I really didn’t know that. I’m going by what I’m told by DPW.”

Both Mr. Seward and Ms. Geremia said the local Barrington leagues were asked if they would contribute more volunteer labor to support the fields, but they all said no. They each said that information came from Mr. Cunha.

Asked this week if they had chosen higher fees in lieu of more volunteer labor, several sports league organizers said they have no idea where the town got that idea. Seth Fisher of Barrington Pop Warner football and cheer said that was not the message shared in a meeting he and Bill Horn, of East Bay Lacrosse, had with Mr. Cunha. 

Mr. Horn repeated that sentiment. 

“It was more about expectations if we were required to pay higher field fees, not volunteering to pay higher fees in exchange for something that is already being done,” he said.

Steve DeBoth of Barrington Youth Soccer said, “I never, never, never said we would rather pay the increased field use fees for any reason whatsoever.”

The recreation commission meets this Thursday night, and field fees are on the agenda. The Barrington Town Council is expected to vote on the new fee structure on Monday, March 4.

Barrington stands alone

In the communities shown below (aside from Barrington), youth sports leagues (soccer, lacrosse, football, baseball, softball) receive free access to the city or town facilities. In most of those communities, the leagues contribute volunteer labor, but they do not pay fees. 

Municipality

Fees?

Barrington

Yes

Bristol

No

Charlestown

No

Coventry

No

Cranston

No

Cumberland

No

East Greenwich

No

East Providence

No

Exeter

No

Foster

No

Hopkinton

No

Jamestown

No

Johnston

No

Lincoln

No

Little Compton

No

Middletown

No

Narragnasett

No

New Shoreham

No

Newport

No

North Kingstown

No

Pawtucket

No

Portsmouth

No

Scituate

No

South Kingstown

No

Tiverton

No

West Warwick

No

Warren

No

West Greenwich

No

Westerly

No

Recreation directors in the following communities did not respond to multiple requests for information: Burrillville, Central Falls, Glocester, North Providence, North Smithfield, Providence, Richmond, Smithfield, Warwick and Woonsocket.

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Scott Pickering

Scott Pickering has been on the East Bay Newspapers team for more than two decades, since starting as a reporter for the Sakonnet Times. He's been editor of most of the papers, was Managing Editor of all the papers for many years, and became General Manager in 2012. Today he can be found posting to EastBayRI.com, steering news coverage, writing editorials, talking to readers, working with the sales team, collaborating on design, or helping do whatever it takes to get the papers out the door. Reach him at spickering@eastbaynewspapers.com.