More than 1,250 youngsters play ball on the Oak Hill fields in the spring, 900 in the fall
By Ann Fowler
AUSTIN – The City of Austin has decided to phase out a significant utility subsidy to the Oak Hill baseball and softball complex because it is on private property. The Oak Hill ballfields are located at Joe Tanner Lane and U.S. Highway 290 West.
Also losing subsidies are the Balcones Youth Sports, the North Austin Optimists and the West Austin Youth Association—all located on private grounds.
Stephen Bega, president of the Oak Hill Youth Sports Association (OHYSA), has been associated with the group for ten years. He said OHYSA purchased the property because the City had no space in the area for kids to play America’s pastime.
Bega added, “This is the only facility in Oak Hill that allows youth to play organized baseball and softball. There are no close alternatives for kids in this area of Austin.
City officials said the closest City-owned sports park is the Lonestar Circle C park on Slaughter Lane, which has soccer fields but none for baseball or softball. Garrison District Park on Manchaca is the next closest, with one softball and three baseball fields. The Oak Hill complex has six baseball and two softball fields.
Bega said, “Playing games in the evening is a necessity as we have too many teams and too many kids to play only on weekends, or before sunset.” In the spring season, night games are played every day. If those are curtailed, “We will not be able to accommodate as many teams or players,” said Bega.
More than 1,250 youngsters play ball on the Oak Hill fields in the spring; 900 play during the fall. Said Bega: “Because Oak Hill is on privately owned land, the City of Austin is phasing our subsidies out after three more years. The subsidy decreases by 20 percent each year until it’s at zero.”
Bega told the Gazette: “There will be a $40,000 shortfall in our annual budget that we will need to make up—either through increased registration fees or hosting of more select tournaments and other uses for the facility that will generate revenue. As a last resort, we will need to cut down on our night games if those things do not make up the shortfall.”
A City official gave those exact reasons—the ability of OHYSA to set fees and host any number of tournaments—as the reason for terminating the subsidy.
Victor Ovalle, Program Manager of Public Information and Marketing with Austin Parks and Recreation, explained the reason for the change: “Organizations using private property (fields on private property) do not have any public access requirements. Organizations using fields on public owned land (property owned by the City) are required to allow the public to use the fields. Organizations using private property enjoy an exclusivity that is not available to organizations on public lands.”
He added that organizations using private property are allowed to establish their own fees and rent the fields at their own discretion, while those using public fields are not. Ovalle added, “Entities using public fields are allowed a maximum number of fundraising tournaments per agreement year and organizations using private land have no fundraising restrictions.”
Bega points out that OHYSA maintains the fields and the area surrounding the fields, money the City would have to spend—in addition to the electricity—if it maintained facilities for Oak Hill baseball and softball.
According to the OHYSA website, the organization “devotes a significant portion of the annual budget to maintaining the fields, grounds, cages and buildings throughout our 14-acre complex.”
Capital improvements listed for the 2012-2013 winter break included:
• 750 feet of perimeter fencing throughout the complex
• Retrofitting of all lights on the Pony field
• Expanded patio, ADA compliant ramps, stairs and railing behind concession stand
• Grill covered energy-efficient fixtures in Thunderdome (batting cages)
• Pinto safety barriers
• Expanded Mustang 1 access and viewing area
• Repainted bathrooms and added new plumbing fixtures
• Erosion control and buildup at front concession and Bronco viewing
• Windscreen replacement on Mustang 1
Ezequiel Garza, manager of the Oak Hill Dodgers Pinto team, said, “This is a sad note on the City’s part. This organization is all about the kids in our community, and it’s nonprofit. We all pay taxes. This league is all about volunteers, sustained mainly by donations and area business sponsorships. Many of the kids that participate in this league would not be able to play the game of baseball if not for the low cost and affordability this league offers.”
Garza added, “If this was up to the people of this community to decide and put up for a vote, I have no doubt that the taxpayers would vote in a landslide to keep the subsidies.”
The original agreement with the City, enacted in 1986, waived all utility fees for youth sports associations willing to pay for building and maintaining their own parks.
In 2009, during public meetings to discuss the 2010-11 City budget, one suggestion was to cancel this utility waiver. However, Austin citizens made clear that they were opposed to that cost-saving measure. Instead, a new City code was created to subsidize each association’s utilities to the tune of about $5,000 per field per year.
Bega noted that the City increased electricity rates in October 2012, but the subsidy remained the same. “We are 100 percent responsible for all amounts above that subsidy,” he said, adding, “We are responsible for all water, sewer and trash.”
Bega added, “We are continuing to have discussions with the City on ways to improve the funding and also to keep the subsidies intact,” but he added, “Dealing with the City is not always easy or speedy.”
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