By Misty Volaski
Ojai P.O.N.Y Baseball players and parents, along with members of two Ojai senior baseball teams, are calling foul after a contentious Ojai Parks and Recreation Commission meeting Aug. 4.
According to P.O.N.Y. Baseball board member Bryan Crawford, the Ojai Recreation Department is charging the youth baseball organization more than twice the 2010 rate for using the baseball fields at Sarzotti Park. The ORD charged P.O.N.Y. $1,568 for the use of the fields in 2010, Crawford said. They got an unwelcome surprise when the 2011 bill came this year;
“$5,500 was the first billing that we received,” Crawford said, “and that was then lowered to $3,868.50 as the original billing was trying to charge us for the use of our Shetland field (T-ball), which Ojai P.O.N.Y. built with our own money and labor. We then had the bill revised again due to some rain-out days, so the final billing was $3,256.50.”
Dale Sumersille, director of recreation for the city, could not provide dollar amounts that P.O.N.Y. paid either in years past or for the 2011 season. She did, however, say that according to her records, the fields had been used 497 hours in 2011 almost twice as many as were used in the past four years. But the invoice provided by the city of Ojai to Ojai P.O.N.Y. Baseball on June 16 of this year shows only 279 hours of field time (24 hours in February, 53.5 hours in March, 108.5 hours in April, and 94 hours in May).
“The number, 497, sounds high to me,” said P.O.N.Y. President Robert Roddick. “I don’t see how that’s feasible.”
‘We had four fewer teams (in the league) this year than last year so that doesn’t seem to make sense,” said P.O.N.Y. parent and board member Nikki Crawford.
While the billing for the Gold Coast Senior league teams in Ojai was significantly less, said Sumersille, “The seniors (teams) have never been charged properly, anyway. That was done by previous employees who were supposed to be charging them.”
Sumersille hastened to add that rates for most ORD programs have been raised, and that several programs had been reduced or eliminated as a result of the city’s mandate that the Parks and Recreation Department cut its budget by $150,000 for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. Sumersille also said that an independent review of field use rates other communities in the area found Ojai’s prices to be “reasonable. Out of 15 agencies, we’re still one of the lowest price-wise.”
While price is certainly a concern, one of the main sources of frustration from both P.O.N.Y. and the senior teams seems to be the maintenance of Sarzotti Park.
“It’s a hazard waiting to happen,” said Bob Hill, of the senior softball group. “We went out one night and there were piles of dirt in front of the dugout, piles of grass in the outfield where they cut part of the grass for the soccer fields. I’m out there worried that our seniors are going to fall and break a hip! The current recreation director doesn’t maintain the fields in the way they’ve done in the past. I know that’s partially because of budget restraints, but this comes down to safety. I’ve lived here my whole life and this is the worst I’ve seen Sarzotti ever maintained.”
He went on to say he was turned down when he offered to have his players come out to Sarzotti and “cut weeds, sweep, pick up trash, clean things up, in return for helping us out a little bit (on the rates they’re charged for field usage).” He says a similar offer was accepted by Ventura County for use of the fields at Soule Park, and that he and the teams wouldn’t be returning to play their games at Sarzotti until ORD “management changes were made.” At Soule, Hill said, “ we repainted, replaced the boards, fixed fences, added new benches, got volunteers help, got Ojai Lumber to donate, and they (the county) are giving us (usage of the) fields free, and free admission for our fans.”
P.O.N.Y. Baseball board members said they felt similarly frustrated, but have not made a decision whether or not to move their program. “That’s the hard thing for me we maintain the fields, we line them, we paid for our own dirt and brought it in, graded everything,” said P.O.N.Y. board member Randy Bertin. “I don’t know that we got anything in return as far as a price break.”
Bryan Crawford elaborated: “To our knowledge no credit was made in consideration for all of our league’s time and efforts that we spent this year. We had three different work days that were at least four to six hours in length with 10 to 15 volunteers.”
Sumersille said that she and the Parks and Recreation Commission only have advisory power, and that only the City Council has the power to make adjustments and changes to the price schedule. However, she added, she and the Parks and Recreation Commission are recommending that the city consider reduced field rates for nonprofit groups and in-kind donations; they also worked out a deal with the city to start cutting the grass every week once again, from March to September (then it will switch to every other week).
In addition, she noted, a committee has been organized to discuss policy and how to best move on from this point. “It consists of Parks and Recreation commissioners, City Council members, the city attorney, myself, the Public Works director, city engineer and a few (park) users.” Sumersille said a final decision on the rates and policies is being looked at but probably would not be done before September at the earliest.
Crawford said P.O.N.Y. is “hopeful that some resolution will come from the (committee).” He expressed gratitude to the Parks and Recreation Commission, who “in my opinion were very receptive to our comments and seem to want to make the changes needed. (But) if the rates continue to go up I am sorry to say we may be forced to shut down Ojai P.O.N.Y. Baseball. I would kill me if we had to do that.”