In a sign of renewed harmony at Toronto city hall, council voted unanimously Tuesday to waive new sports-field fees that had surprised and angered youth leagues across the city.
Council opted to replace the $1.5-million in foregone fee revenue with savings from labour settlements reached earlier this year, rather than forcing the parks department to find the money in its budget.
“This is not a victory for the mayor or any particular councillor,” Councillor Janet Davis told reporters after the vote. “This is a victory for the kids of the city and the sports organizations who work tirelessly every year to make sports opportunities available in our city.”
Ms. Davis, a vocal critic of the mayor, was one of a handful of councillors who worked to kill the fees this year, organizing a public forum that attracted about 200 people and securing Rob Ford’s 11th-hour support in a meeting last week.
After speaking with Ms. Davis and Councillor Sarah Doucette Thursday, Mr. Ford agreed to make waiving the fees his key item at council Tuesday, an endorsement that moved it to the top of the agenda.
“This is an extremely important issue,” Mr. Ford said on the council floor Tuesday. “We all support youth getting out, using our fields, getting exercise, working with others. I would really appreciate if you could support this motion I put forward.”
Mr. Ford wasn’t present for the final 41-0 vote on the item. A sore back forced him to leave the meeting and see a doctor.
The sports-field fee issue emerged weeks after council finalized its 2012 budget. The budget passed without flagging the heavy toll of a new policy to charge children and youth leagues for their use of city-owned fields for baseball, soccer, cricket, lacrosse and other games. Prior to the 2012 budget, the city only levied field fees for adult leagues.
In many cases, the change meant children and youth leagues were slapped with surprise bills of tens of thousands of dollars after they had already set and collected their player registration fees for the season.
“We don’t disagree that we should be paying our share. It was the way that this came in that we had a huge problem with,” said Patrick McConnell, the head of Bloordale Baseball, a league of 300 under-16 players in Etobicoke.
Had council not reversed course, the new fee policy would have more than doubled Bloordale’s annual costs, from $33,000 to $72,000, he said.
Budget chief Mike Del Grande told his colleagues he would take the blame for the new fees sliding through unnoticed.
“I will take the responsibility, but I think at the same time, before you start throwing the stones please look at the ceiling that you’re throwing them at,” he said.
The city now has to decide what to charge in future years.
Council also voted unanimously to ask the general manager of the Parks, Forestry and Recreation department to consult with leagues and report back on a proposed fee structure; on how groups should be notified before fees are raised; on a rainout policy; and on how to keep sports affordable in poor neighbourhoods, among other questions about how city fields are maintained and administered.
“In 2013 we absolutely want to be part of the solution,” Mr. McConnell of the Bloordale league said. “We understand that we’re going to be instituting some fees.”
With a report from Elizabeth Church