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Chattanooga Times Free Press (Tennessee)
Amid a dispute over an unsanctioned team using county basketball courts without permission, Ringgold Youth Sports Association's president handed his key to the facility to Catoosa County on Thursday.
Earl Epps, head of the nonprofit, said some parents complained to the parks and recreation department because of the North Georgia Thunder, his "all-stars" travel team. Technically, the team is not part of the Ringgold Youth Sports Association, but Thunder players also participate in the organization.
Competing for the Thunder costs extra money. Epps said he hosts twice-yearly tournaments for the Thunder at the county-owned Poplar Springs Gym, using the proceeds to pay players' travel expenses. That is where the conflict emerged.
Epps did not get specific permission to host those tournaments, and County Attorney Chad Young said profiting from the use of the public gym would be at odds with the Georgia Constitution. Even for something as mundane as youth sports, making money off your work there would be a violation of the Gratuities Clause, he said.
Young said county employees began looking into the issue about a month ago, when some parents involved with the RYSA complained.
"I don't know if [Epps] is running a private league or not," he said. "I haven't done any of the investigation. But if he or anyone else was trying to run a private league, that is not proper."
Epps said the dispute got out of control -- fast.
"It's a bunch of disgruntled parents," he said, "and they're hurting other people's parents."
But he did not dispute that he's technically running two separate leagues out of the gym, saying, "The only connection is, it's the same kids."
The RYSA is funded by parents and donations, including a grant from Catoosa County, according to the organization's IRS 990 tax return. From 2015-16, the RYSA received $424,000 in contributions and donations and spent $336,000.
Last May, Epps and some RYSA parents attended a Catoosa County Commission meeting and asked for a key so they could get into have the gym whenever they wanted. Epps said his league runs basketball throughout the year. Going through the county for each gym trip meant a county employee would have to come with them to monitor their use of the building.
"I'm a grown man," Epps said. "I'm the president of our association. I don't need to pay a high school kid $10 an hour to watch our practices."
He said the commissioners agreed he should have a key, though they never actually voted on the issue. He had the key until Thursday, when the county workers asked him to return it. RYSA will need permission next time its players use the building.
Commissioner Ray Johnson said he thought the county agreed last year to allow Epps' players practice and play games at the gym, as long as someone from the county made sure the building was clean after.
"I can't say I did or didn't give him the key," Johnson said. "I don't remember giving him the key."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.
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