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Little League park’s future in question

The group operating Keizer Little League Park says they need more financial help from the city for upgrading and replacing facilities and equipment. (File)

Of the Keizertimes

A unique arrangement puts parents almost entirely in charge of the city’s baseball fields, and its sustainability remains an open question.

In a city famed for its low taxes, the city of Keizer has largely turned over to volunteers the type of tasks that most everywhere else is at least partially publicly subsidized: Everything from field maintenance to capital projects like new retaining walls, backstops and fences.

It’s been that way since the city bought two parcels on Ridge Drive totaling 21.4 acres to create Keizer Little League Park in the 1980s. The city has kicked in time, resources and cash for major projects like permanent restrooms and drainage improvements, but City Manager Chris Eppley said the bargain for taxpayers is unique in the Mid-Valley. The group operating the fields is asking for the city’s financial help for both maintenance and improvement projects.

“I don’t know of any other city that does it the way we do it, completely volunteer like that,” Eppley said. “The standard model is that the fields are either subsidized or completely maintained by either a city or a recreation district, and then you may have a volunteer group that manages field usage.”

That volunteer group in our community is Keizer Youth Sports Association, which grew out of a split among Keizer Little League parents. A group called Keizer Little League still exists and plays ball at the park. Both claimed the lineage of the original Keizer Little League group that managed the park for more than 20 years in what was at times quite an acrimonious split.

Residual effects are still apparent, as when Keizer Little League president Cari Buchholz tesitfied before the Keizer City Council that her group and KYSA can’t come to an agreement on exchanging volunteer labor for cash credit. KYSA charges all groups, including KLL, who wish to use the fields.

“We have many volunteers and contractors in the community, we have resources who can help with field maintenance,” Buchholz told councilors. “We’ve just never been able to work together for whatever reason.”

Kurt Barker, baseball program director for KYSA, sought and got a $10-per-game field fee increase from the city council to $30 per game. Buchholz disagreed with being charged more for fields she and others in KLL think need improvement.

“We want to work with KYSA to keep the fields in good, clean condition for the city of Keizer,” Buchholz said.

Barker said the fee increase was needed to essentially help keep the group’s collective heads above water. And he questioned whether all volunteering should be considered for a financial discount, noting KYSA parents also volunteer but don’t pay less in fees because of it.

“The only way for this to work is every kid who’s in baseball or softball, no matter what brand they play, they all need to contribute either financially and volunteer-wise an euqal amount toward maintaining those fields,” Barker said. “With the current park management agreement it’s a lot easier to let someone else do the work and just rent the fields.”

He said the arrangement puts KYSA at such a disadvantage that 2012 could be the group’s last year managing the park if changes – notably more city funding – aren’t made.

Viewpoints diverge as to why an all-volunteer arrangement that once appeared to function well is no longer adequate. While city funding and equipment played essential roles in some big projects, Keizer has had perhaps more than its fair share of whom you might call super-volunteers: The kind of people for whom noble efforts like coaching ballteams or manning concession stands is just the beginning, who at times of the year spend more time at the ballpark than at home.

“There used to be more ability in people’s lives to volunteer time than there is anymore,” Eppley said. “As you have more and more families being two-income, as lifestyles change, as we become busier and busier as family units and individuals, people don’t have the time and energy to donate their effort as they once did.”

Others think it’s more a matter of willpower, of having rules – and enforcing them.

“You say, if you want to play ball, this will be done,” Councilor Jim Taylor said at last week’s meeting. “If you give someone an out, they will take it every time. … Things are different now because there’s an out.”

When he was a softball parent, he said he spent three days a week mowing the fields himself.

Eppley points out the community lost a huge booster and volunteer leader with the retirement and death of Bob Newton, a former mayor who was a Oregon National Guard colonel. He helped bring training exercises to town that literally moved the earth to shape the little league fields, and is responsible for several of the city’s park shelters along with the bleachers at McNary High School’s football stadium.

Rob Kissler, the city’s public works director, donated many personal hours when his son was playing baseball – everything from laying pipe to constructing buildings. But he acknowledges volunteering isn’t as simple as it used to be.

“Society’s gotten more complicated with rules and regulations,” Kissler said.

Eppley said the future likely will require that the city chip in more for capital projects in particular, but Councilor Mark Caillier said last week the money would have to come from somewhere other than the general fund.

“If it comes down to police officers or Little League fields, I’m afraid I’m going to be voting for police officers,” Caillier said.