By Bob Uphues
Brookfield Recreation Director Stevie Ferrari and Village Manager Timothy Wiberg got an up-close look at just how much clout the village's youth baseball leagues wield last week after getting push back on a proposed field-use policy that included charging fees for the privilege and signing formal agreements outlining each party's responsibilities.
The fees would, Ferrari told trustees at their committee of the whole meeting on Oct. 28, provide critical revenue for the Department of Parks and Recreation for park improvements.
She proposed a tiered structure for fees, charging less for power users like Little League with strong community ties and more to those without such strong community ties or for-profit organizations. The proposed fees ranged between $10 and $40 per hour per field.
The structure also would differentiate organizations – some of whom provide significant financial and maintenance help, like Little League, and those who provide nothing.
Designating groups as "affiliate," "community" and "for-profit," Ferrari said, would also protect groups that serve mostly Brookfield residents, by giving them priority for field use,
Ferrari, who was hired in 2018 as the village's first recreation director in more than a decade, estimated that such a structure would result in the village receiving between $20,000 and $30,000 annually. Those funds, she said, would be reinvested into the village's parks for things like basketball court resurfacing, fence repair, playground equipment and more.
Through the end of September, said Ferrari, her department had spent $200,000 on park maintenance in 2019. In addition, Brookfield's Open Space Plan, adopted by the village board in 2015, identifies more than $2 million in park improvements to be done in the next five years.
"We have been able to implement little of those projects, and that is because we don't have the funds available to do so and we have no system in place currently that would allow us to contribute to any of those costs," Ferrari said.
After a nearly two-hour discussion at the village board's Oct. 28 committee of the whole meeting, Ferrari and Wiberg were directed by the village board to meet with representatives of the youth athletic organizations, like Brookfield Little League, Western Conference Baseball and AYSO Soccer, to find a way forward.
While both village officials and youth league representatives who spoke at the Oct. 28 meeting appeared to be on board with formal agreements stating which party was responsible for what, there wasn't so much agreement on the proposed fee structure or whether organizations like Brookfield Little League should have to pay any fee at all.
"What [Little League] has done and what they've created in this town goes above and beyond programming," said Trustee Brian Conroy. "What they give, we cannot enhance. We do not have the manpower, the facilities or the capability of doing anything to enhance that program."
Conroy said the village could not match the maintenance level the league provides for the ballfields or the number of hours its volunteers work on them.
"In my mind, we're indebted to Little League for creating this program," Conroy said. "There's a lot of other low-hanging fruit we can pursue as far as creating programs and fees."
If Little Leagues use of the field was producing expenses that the village wasn't recouping, Conroy said he'd be "all for talking to them and trying to get that."
"To me the league is an extension of the village," Conroy said. "I think to charge them anything is wrong."
The strength of Conroy's opposition to charging Brookfield Little League a field-use fee underlines the power the league wields when it comes to the baseball fields at Kiwanis and Ehlert parks.
Since the late 1950s, the leagues have been given virtual control of the fields. In exchange for the leagues maintaining and improving the fields, they expect the village to largely leave them alone.
Dave Campbell, treasurer of Brookfield Little League, told trustees on Oct. 28 that over the past three seasons the league has spent more than $76,500 on field maintenance, including fence repairs.
While Campbell said he welcomed a formal agreement laying out responsibilities, charging the league a field-use fee on top of that, Campbell said, "felt like this was a tax on Little League."
Ferrari pointed out that it is not uncommon for village recreation departments to charge organizations a fee to use village-owned fields. Brookfield stands virtually alone in not assessing any field-use fee to organizations like Little League.
Riverside, for example, charges community organizations $25 for every two-hour block of time and keeps a separate field maintenance agreement with Little League, which pays for field renovation and special projects.
North Riverside, too, charges groups in Little League $25 an hour for field use. And while the village handles field repair, maintenance and supplies, the local Little League "has paid an estimated $10,000 over the past three years to the department," according to Ferrari.
While it's unclear whether the village board will allow the recreation department to implement a policy that seeks to charge a fee to groups using its fields, Wiberg said in a separate interview that the Department of Parks and Recreation seeking to recoup costs via fees "makes absolute sense to me."
In addition to ongoing park maintenance, the village of Brookfield has spent millions of dollars in the past 15 years to expand and improve its parks, in part with the help of open space grants, but also using hundreds of thousands of dollars in village funds.
In 2004, it spent $2.15 million to purchase the eastern portion of Ehlert Park from Lyons-Brookfield School District 103 and then spend almost $2 million more over the subsequent decade improving the fields.
A major improvement to Kiwanis Park cost $560,000 and the village is also seeking a state grant to help fund a major overhaul of Candy Cane Park. Those improvements benefit all Brookfielders, said Wiberg, who likened the field-use fee to a building permit. Even though homeowners pay for improvements to their houses, they also pay building permit fees to cover the costs for inspections and plan review.
"We should be getting a fee. That's how municipal governments are run," Wiberg said. "The responsibility I have is to operate a recreation department that fulfills the needs of residents, and we don't have enough revenue to do that."
This story has been changed to correct the price the village of Brookfield paid District 103 to acquire the land that comprises the eastern portion of Ehlert Park. The amount was $2.15 million.