More than 1,000 people packed Murphey Candler Park last weekend for a tournament sponsored by the Murphey Candler Girls’ Softball Association (MCGSA). The fields have been mowed, base lines chalked, bathrooms cleaned, bleachers repaired. Parent volunteers did most of the work. Welcome to the new reality in DeKalb county sports. You are on your own.
Four hundred girls played softball this spring in what was the Murphey Candler Girls Softball Association’s 44th season. For most of those years, DeKalb county parks department maintained the fields. In 2007, it spent $1.5 million - mostly parks bond money - to rebuild four of the five fields. But several years ago the county told the independent leagues they would have to be self-supporting.
“We pay for everything, electricity, toilet paper, mowing, fertilizer. Everything,” said MCGSA President Cullen McClure. “They will pick up trash and sometimes clean the bathrooms, but the county no longer maintains the fields.”
This has led to an increase in the fees to $250 a girl in order to cover costs. Fundraising has been stepped up to pay for other expenses like scholarships or a new tractor when the old one died. This year the league raised another $65,000 to add new fences, drainage and irrigation to a field the county did not redo. Now the auxiliary is trying to raise $40,000 to buy shade tarps for the bleachers.
This is a common story among DeKalb sports leagues. Murphey Candler Boys Little League, in its 54th season raised $340,000 in fees and donations to run its spring program for 950 boys. Colts football and cheerleading faced similar challenges supporting their programs.
Sports programs have always relied on parents and the community for support, but the decline in county support is unprecedented and among the most severe in the metro area. If Brookhaven becomes a city in the July 31 referendum, the new city would take over parks and recreation in the area.
A look at the DeKalb Parks and Recreation budget paints a grim picture. In 2008, the budget was $22.5 million with 257 full-time employees. This year it is less than half of that at $10.2 million and 149 employees. With 130 parks, 13 recreation centers, 12 pools, and several hundred ball fields, soccer fields and tennis courts, DeKalb County spokesman Burke Brennan said that the cuts in sports programs are countywide,
“Financially successful athletic association at parks such as Murphey Candler, Pleasantdale, Henderson, Medlock, Gresham and Wade Walker are taking on more of the ground maintenance, turf replacement and restroom maintenance and this is taking place countywide.”
On the other side of the road from the ball fields, Friends of Murphey Candler Park organizes volunteers to clear the underbrush, repair fences, clear downed trees and maintain the trail around the lake built by Boy Scouts. Keeping up the100-acre park, according to Friends founder, Karen Whitehead, is a daunting and discouraging task.
“I don’t know if the county lacks the means or the will,” said Whitehead, who is also on the DeKalb Parks Citizens Advisory Committee. “ It has been difficult for me to listen about the money they don’t have and watch them spend money elsewhere. People who live around here see the park as a manifestation of what’s happened to their tax money. It’s going elsewhere.”
Whitehead said she and other representatives met with county officials, with a formal presentation of the problems, from broken and unsafe playground equipment that is more than 20 years old, to the poison ivy, fallen trees and serious erosion around the lake.
“We got lip service and were led to believe something would happen, but it didn’t,” said Whitehead who adds that the county cuts the grass only after she calls to complain.
While county operating budgets have been hit hard by the recession, the $96 million from the 2005 Parks Bond have been spent in recent years to develop state-of-the-art facilities, many in places previously underserved by the county.
The DeKalb CEO’s publication “One DeKalb: 2011-2012 Report to Stakeholders” features many of the bond expenditures: $5.7 million for the Redan Recreation Center, $6.3 million for the Exchange Recreation Center, $3.2 million spent to develop Mason Mill Park (where the CEO wants to build a Soap Box Derby Race track), $1.3 million to improve Flat Shoals Park and $1.2 million to build a new YMCA at Wade Walker Park. The $1.5 million for Murphey Candler softball and the $11 million money promised for Brook Run Park in Dunwoody (where only $ 4 million has been spent and is a subject of litigation) are the only parks north of I-85 to receive county bond money.
Park activists like Whitehead said nobody resents that other parts of the county get needed facilities.
“But when they build ‘Taj Mahals’ and it appears to be at the expense of other parts of the county, that’s not good. “
The Carl Vinson Institute’s feasibility study for a proposed city of Brookhaven reported that DeKalb County spent $480,140 last year to maintain the eight parks, two recreation centers, three pools, tennis center and numerous playgrounds and other park amenities in the Brookhaven footprint.
Because the citizen’s committee that funded the study wanted to estimate the cost of a much improved park system, the city of Roswell, with its award-winning parks, was used as a comparison. Using those figures, the study estimated it would cost $1.376 million to support a first-class park system, which is included in the estimated expenditures for the new city.
Next week: Road to Brookhaven: Pools, playgrounds and rec centers.