Oct 4 2010

Opinion: The Cost of Building and Maintaining Piedmont Sports Fields By Ralph Catalano and Randolph Wedding

How much should Piedmont city taxpayers subsidize the cost of building and maintaining sports fields used primarily by private sports clubs?

By Ralph Catalano and Randolph Wedding, Piedmont residents.
(The following expresses the personal opinions of the authors.  All statements made therein are the opinion of the authors and not necessarily those of the Piedmont Civic Association.)

Americans value universal K-12 education so highly that we rarely impose fees on students or their families to recoup the cost of building and maintaining local schools. Most communities also encourage young people to exercise by providing public parks without charge for unscheduled play. More controversy arises, however, when communities decide how much to subsidize private, organized sports clubs, which generally take priority over non-organized use or casual impromptu activities. Piedmont has generously subsidized private sports clubs over at least the last three decades by building and maintaining first class public facilities available to the clubs at little or no cost. But the City of Piedmont’s and Piedmont Unified School District’s dire fiscal circumstances, coupled with club requests for yet more play field subsidies, have brought the issue front and center, as Piedmont’s budget is no longer balanced and the community looks ahead to the 2012 vote on whether to extend the parcel tax.

Piedmont’s policy of generous subsidies for private groups dates back before the 1987 ballot box defeat of a bond issue to support play field construction at six sites, including Dracena Quarry Park, Piedmont Sports Field (Hampton Field), Havens School, Beach Playfield, Moraga Canyon (Coaches Field), and Witter Field. Despite the nearly two-to-one defeat of the proposal, City and School District leadership brought back each of the projects for separate approval and funding over the ensuing two decades. A look back on the 1986 report of the “Piedmont Grass Play Field Committee,” shows that every one of the proposed projects has been completed as envisioned by that committee.

Parcel Tax Hike Used for Fields

How, given the failure of the bond measure, were the projects financed? The answer, with exception of Witter Field for which the School District arranged partial bond funding, is that the City raised the parcel tax and used proceeds from the City’s General Fund to complete these projects up to and including the City-funded play field/soccer facilities at the new Havens School.

Succeeding City Councils incrementally built and financed projects overwhelmingly rejected as a package by Piedmont voters.  Because of this “piece mealing” strategy there is no comprehensive public estimate of the cost to build, maintain, and operate these facilities. The little reporting we do have actually frustrates such an accounting. For example, the  Piedmont Recreation Department reports making money, a claim it can make only because the maintenance cost of the fields it manages are hidden in the Public Works Department budget. Unlike the cities of Berkeley, Emeryville, Richmond and El Cerrito, where user charges offset maintenance costs, private sports clubs in Piedmont do not pay fees to use city fields.

$2 Million for School District Sports Facilities

This circumstance might have gone unnoticed beyond the next parcel election had not the current recession and reduced tax receipts led Piedmont Board of Education member Richard Raushenbush to study the District’s unfunded obligations for the next decade.   He reported that the School District, City contributions aside, would incur approximately $2.2 million in uncompensated obligations for maintenance, capital replacement, and operation of sports facilities. He recommended that the School Board approve a plan to charge non-school organizations the full cost of their use so that public monies intended for education would not be diverted to subsidize sports clubs or other private entities.

The response from the sports clubs and their supporters was swift and strong. Some press reports made the “Raushenbush Report” sound like a betrayal of good parenting. City staff and members of the City Council publicly urged that the District not impose full fees on users, recommending instead that the City and School District devise a joint plan for maintaining and operating sports facilities. The School Board acquiesced, but no plan has yet emerged.

How Much To Maintain City-owned Sports Facilities?

The City has yet to issue its version of the Raushenbush accounting. Taxpayers have no idea of the costs of piecemeal implementation of the failed 1987 ballot measure. For example, taxpayers might be dismayed to learn that over a 20-year period, $100,000 per year would be spent to maintain and ultimately replace just one turf sports field at Coaches Field (per the Callander report, commissioned by the City in 2007). Given the total number of hours of potential  use, $100,000 equates to $65/hr. users fee.

Sports facility costs may yet increase for Piedmont taxpayers, as the sports clubs and their supporters in City Hall have unveiled plans for a Moraga Canyon Sports Complex. This scheme calls for two new artificial turf fields and a pedestrian bridge arching over Moraga Avenue. The plan further calls for the installation of night lighting and the replacement of Coaches Field’s grass with artificial turf.

The sports clubs along with individuals have contributed funds for the preparation of an EIR for the project, but the City’s costs for the EIR and related reports will exceed the private gift. The project itself would probably cost between $8 million and $10 million to build, although its sports club designers have not provided cost estimates. The sports clubs say they will make a contribution for some, but not all, construction costs and have made no commitment to capital replacement, liability, legal, and maintenance costs. Based on estimates in the Raushenbush report for similar facilities, however, it appears clear that as currently envisioned, the proposed Moraga Canyon facilities alone would cost at least $2.5 million to maintain and operate over the next decade.

As we approach the vote to extend the City parcel tax, Piedmont homeowners have no accounting of the City’s subsidy to the sports clubs, with or without the proposed Moraga Canyon facility. It remains to be seen if anyone on the City Council will request such a report.

One Response to “Opinion: The Cost of Building and Maintaining Piedmont Sports Fields By Ralph Catalano and Randolph Wedding”

  1. What is the cost of the parents of half a dozen teams/squads driving out to Alameda 3 times per week and going back 2 hours later to collect (having waited on the coach to finish!). What’s the value of my time?
    I doubt your maths but $65/hr for a soccer match with say 15 person squads (forget the joy of all the parents and anyone else involved) works out at about $2/hr – a bargain.
    As there no other options for younger kids to play organized sport it seems rather mean to call these nonprofit volunteeer based organisations “private clubs”. Indeed having contributed innumerable hours for free as coach, assisstant and refereree I find this rather attitude rather churlish.
    I agree that it should be more transparent financially. I also think it would be interesting to know the geographic distribution of those who oppose it, to ensure this is not a pure case of NIMBYism.

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