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The city is considering quadrupling the fee it charges out-of-town youths to play in its sports programs -- a move that has organizers alarmed at its potential to price many youths out of participating.
Under a proposal scheduled for City Council discussion in September, the city would replace the current $40 participant fee with a $170 family fee. The issue, originally on the council's July 10 agenda, was rescheduled to allow youth league leaders and others to weigh in.
"I personally think it caters to people who have more income and it hurts low-income people," Damien Murray, president of the soccer program for the Palm Beach Gardens Youth Athletic Association, said Thursday, adding, "There are a lot of kids in Riviera Beach who don't have these programs in their community."
Neither Jupiter nor any town in Martin County has a nonresident fee, he added. The closest city that has one, Royal Palm Beach, charges out-of-town residents about $10 extra, Murray said.
A Palm Beach Gardens staff report in May noted that an increase in participation in organized sports was wearing down the playing fields, causing the city to have to amp up maintenance.
The report calculated that $170 of the average resident's tax bill goes toward field maintenance. By that measure, city officials saw the $40 nonresident fee as unfairly low and moved to raise it, along with a host of other unrelated fees and service charges.
The staff report recommended the city consider raising fees for field permits and non-recreation programs, such as parties held at park facilities, and to "evaluate nonresident participation" in youth athletic association programs.
"The curve is beating us," Deputy City Manager Jack Doughney said at the time, displaying a graph showing participant hours rose while maintenance staff hours fell over the past five years.
The city maintains 15 public parks covering 185 acres. These have 32 sports fields open day and night. Since 2009, the report said, the fields have seen an "inordinate increase" in play by children and adults but mainly led by increased participation in the Palm Beach Gardens Youth Athletic Association, the city's main youth sports organization. The organization saw its membership grow to nearly 7,000 last year from 3,885 in 2009.
Sports have been added, such as lacrosse, flag football and soccer programs. The soccer program has doubled in size and flag football has increased by 30 percent. There also has been an increase in travel team sports, tournaments and in adult sports leagues, the report said.
Jacob Webb, president of the Youth Athletic Association, said news that the fee increase had popped up on Thursday's agenda surprised and disappointed him, since he was working with the city and its Recreation Advisory Board to come up with a solution and had another meeting scheduled to discuss it.
About 35 to 40 percent of the association's participants are from other towns, he said. Some youths from out of town have no choice but to play in Palm Beach Gardens because, for example, that's where Pop Warner football for the area is played.
"Our programs are awesome, and we offer our kids a wonderful opportunity to play with many participants. In our opinion, this would really hurt all of our programs and would actually jeopardize the existence of a few of them," Webb said.
While the family fee might work for some families, others that have multiple children playing two or three sports would find it burdensome, since each program has its own additional fee, he said.
"We don't disagree that there needs to be some type of hike in the fees or some type of restructuring," he said. But he added that the association didn't understand the city's motives -- whether to raise revenue or to reduce the number of children participating -- by charging more.
"It's been staff's position for some time that we have too many participants for us to maintain the fields in the condition that the users are accustomed to," City Manager Ron Ferris said Friday. "That increase was designed to create some equity between what the taxpayer in the city of Palm Beach Gardens pays toward maintenance of those facilities versus the $40 nonresident fee."
Ferris said he'd been unaware the association had another meeting scheduled on the matter and found out through a flurry of emails. "I have no problem setting it aside for two months to give them the opportunity to help us find solutions to the problems we're all facing," he said.
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