A couple weeks ago, we published a letter to the editor that addressed several concerns in our local Parks and Rec Little League Program. You overwhelmingly responded and with the suggestions of readers, county officials, and others, we decided to take an in-depth look at how the program is run and what it takes to make it successful. What we found was quite different than what we expected.
First, here's a quick lesson in county government, as many of our readers seemed to have a different perception on how it works. The Parks and Rec (which handles little league basketball, baseball, and softball, as well as disc golf, walking trails, park maintenance, horseshoe facilities, and a number of other areas) is directed by A.B. Webb, who is beginning his 13th year at the position. He is employed by the county, hired by the Fiscal Court, (your magistrates) which in turn is headed by Judge Executive Wil Cannon. Three years ago, the Fiscal Court appointed a 5 member baseball/softball board (volunteers) for the purpose of overseeing the little league program and for the enforcement of league and park rules and regulations. They are to work together with the director in addressing little league concerns, and they answer to the Fiscal Court. In case you're upset that you don't have a say in who does what in our Parks and Rec, technically, you don't have that right. That is reserved for the elected officials in office. It's the same concept as you or I don't get to decide what the speed limit is on our street, or what road needs to be paved next, etc. You have a vote and you have a district magistrate that should listen to your concerns.
We had a ton of comments, (some rather colorful) emails, and private messages that all voiced concerns on what was wrong with our system. Our recent poll asked "Do changes need to be made to Parks and Rec?" A total of 93% of our readers said "YES," in one way or another.
40% said YES: the baseball/softball board AND director needs change
27% had a problem with current rules/regulations, or enforcement of such
16% said there were problems with the baseball/softball board
10% had a problem with the current director
7% had no problems at all
To Clarify: One of the biggest issues readers seemed to have was the lack of upkeep in the parks, but with what seems to be a well maintained horseshoe pitching facility at Chalybeate Park. Well, here's a shocker: Edmonson County did NOT fund the addition of horseshoes or disc golf to our park. According to officials, Former Judge Executive N.E. Reed was able to secure financing from the state with the help of former State Senator Richie Sanders that paid for the construction and development of horseshoes and disc golf, not the county, and they are maintained mostly by volunteers that use the facilities, not parks and rec funding. County officials also said that it is a separate entity from baseball/softball, and that every penny of the revenue received by baseball/softball is put directly back into the little league programs.
Director A.B. Webb said that's one of the most frustrating things he hears about his job. "I'd never pitched a horseshoe in my life until the horseshoes were put in," he said. "N.E. Reed pushed for those and stayed after me until they were put in. I was asked to pitch with some boys one time over there and I really enjoyed it. And now, since I play, and my son has grown up in it, everybody thinks I spend all my time on horseshoes, and that's not the case." As director, he was originally hired to head up the baseball and softball program and see to field maintenance for one park only, but now the position has ballooned into what some would see as 5 or 6 full-time jobs, with the modest pay of only one.
At the last Fiscal Court meeting, Webb voluntarily offered part of his salary to help with the hire of a baseball/softball little league administrator. The reason? "Because one man can't do it," he said. "It's impossible to do what everybody wants done. One man just can't do it." Webb said he wants to use his position for the maintenance of the parks themselves, at all three parks, and leave the administration of league activities to someone else. "I can only do what the Fiscal Court and the Judge Executive lets me do. I can't fix things if they won't let me. I'm not saying anything against N.E. (Reed) I mean, look what all he helped get us, more actually than we can probably keep up. You add a few hundred dollars here, a few hundred there-- to fix this-or-that, and before you know it, you've got thousands of dollars a month in expense for maintenance that the county doesn't have."
He said that the majority of complaints he receives on a regular basis are things that he either has no control of, or are based on incorrect assumptions that the general public has made. For example, in addition to the horseshoe issue, he was recently accused of receiving an additional $11,000 on top of his regular salary to keep Chalybeate Park mowed. "That's not true," Webb said. "I don't know who came up with that, the same guy has had the mowing contract on that park since day one."
So Where's The Problem? Well, it depends on who you ask. If you talk to some coaches, overall, they'll tell you that it's difficult to know who's in charge. Chad Clemmons, a local coach with 17 years experience in the program, says that he feels that consistency with how things are done is the biggest problem. He also said that he felt the purpose of the board was good, but without good results. "I don't think board members should be coaches with kids in the league," he said. "They're probably going to favor their own kids and not the betterment of the whole league. Really, I don't think (board members) should even have ties to a league." Clemmons also said (along with another coach that wished to remain anonymous) that it's because of these issues that cause qualified people to stay away from coaching. "You have to beg people to coach every year, and because of that, you settle on people who aren't qualified to do it, and that causes problems," he said.
Laura Thomas, current board member and 20 year coach in the league feels that there is a big problem with ethics. "As adults in these programs, we should be held to a high standard of ethics. When there are adults acting worse than the children (on the ball fields) it needs to be corrected," she said. "I think there needs to be a better system of accountability so that when you're putting an ethical code in place and it's broken, there has to be consequences." She expressed that she's looking forward to working with the new board members for 2015, and that she hoped this issue could be addressed.
She also said that it's virtually impossible to find board members that don't coach, have a child in the league, or is tied in some other way because that route has been tried multiple times. "We just can't find people willing to volunteer that don't have ties to the league in some way or another."
Several parents said in emails that local high school umpires are a big problem and that some are not qualified to umpire, nor able to enforce the rules. Another said that she's seen umpires more interested in their phones or girlfriends than the game they're supposed to be officiating. Michael Meredith, long time coach and former board member says that being able to hire certified umpires would solve many of these issues, but the lack of funds prevent that. "Our kids that umpire do as well as they can," he said. "Kids are kids, and I'm sure they might look at their phone from time to time, or talk to a friend in between innings, but overall, they do a pretty good job." He feels that if there were certified umpires on all fields, behavioral problems would be less frequent. He also pointed out that even if the county could afford certified umpires, (costing $10-$15 more per game than student umpires) there would still be the disadvantage of some local youths losing out on their summer umpiring jobs.
Meredith pointed out that the league is far from perfect, but overall is a good program. "Could things be better? Yes. Does it make me want to go elsewhere ? No, it's not a terribly broken system. We all should try to be part of the solution, not the problem," he said. He also encouraged more folks to volunteer. "More good people need to help. It's easy to complain, but we need to step-up as a community."
While that ideology certainly makes sense, there are also problems that lie within that sentiment. For example, one parent spoke to us who had never been a head coach, but had been an assistant for years. "I mentioned to someone at the park that I was going to volunteer to coach but was told that might not happen if all the other coaches from my son's league last year chose to remain as coaches for the upcoming year. Apparently, they get first dibs, even though some parents were unhappy with the job that a couple coaches did last year," he said. If that's the case, then that certainly discourages new folks from getting involved, and it only raises more questions.
Judge Wil Cannon said he's been searching for program improvements since before he was elected. "People were coming to me before I got elected, telling me "this needs to be done, and that needs to be fixed," the problem is, they can't be done overnight," he said. He said that Director Webb has been proactive with him in trying to find solutions for some issues. He and Webb have already begun the process for repairing basketball backboards, tennis courts, replacing damaged fixtures, and making improvements to the volleyball courts. Cannon said he's spoken to County Road Foreman Ray Page about repairing the walking trail at Chalybeate from erosion in low-lying areas. Winter weather won't allow for some of theses things to be done just yet, but Cannon asked the public for patience, that plans are in place.
He also discussed that he and Fiscal Court were forming a committee for the hiring of what will be the county's first Little League Program Director. "This person will have to have good communication skills, be a good leader, and someone capable of handling a lot of tough issues. Once we hire a good, qualified person for this job, our current Parks Director (Webb) will be able to better take care of fields and the parks themselves, instead of being spread out so thin." Cannon said there had been a couple of names suggested, but careful planning was in place to assure the right person was hired for the job.
So, for $55 per child to play in our local program, is it worth it? Some would quickly say no. Some even drive long distances to other counties to play. Yes, the facilities might be better, but the prices of some other counties are substantially higher. We agree that there are issues that need to be improved, but we can also see that funding plays a huge role. The revenue of Edmonson County is much lower than other surrounding counties and one reason for that is that we have lower tax rates. There are a multitude of taxes that Edmonson Countians don't pay that other counties do. The majority of people don't want their taxes raised, nor do they want to pay additional ones. There are many that already complain about the $55 fee to play here...doesn't seem like the majority would be willing to pay more.
So, What's The Solution? Good question. Actually, it would seem to be a number of things. However, it appears that county officials are willing to work together and are actively seeking those solutions, so that's a good start. With a Park Director willing to give up part of his salary, a Judge Executive that's been working on it since before he was elected, a Fiscal Court that is willing to get creative in order to find more funding, and a new group of folks on the baseball/softball board, it seems the only thing that might be missing from the recipe is a little patience from all of us. Time will tell if the plans in place will work effectively, but from what we've seen so far, things are already getting better.