Petition stirs debate over county parks funding to Hilton Head

tbarton@islandpacket.comNovember 2, 2012 

Hilton Head Island's Jon Luc Delatore, 8, juggles a soccer ball while warming up for practice with the junior league of the Savannah Storm Soccer Academy on Tuesday afternoon at Chaplin Community Park.

SARAH WELLIVER, STAFF PHOTO

A group of Hilton Head Island residents has launched an online petition to get Beaufort County to fix island soccer fields, arguing that parks and recreation money is not being distributed fairly.

They've also emailed messages to county officials and news organizations describing "holes, sunken areas, raised sprinkler heads" and "large bald spots too numerous to count."

The fields are in such disrepair that it jeopardizes children's safety, they argue.

"This issue has been raised numerous times with little to zero impact occurring through normal channels and we are taking this very important issue directly to our community leaders," said Hilton Head resident Bob Cooke, who began the petition. Cooke, who coaches basketball and soccer on Hilton Head, says he has collected about 600 signatures so far.

"We need (county officials) to explain to us why our Hilton Head tax dollars are not reaching back to our fields for our children and why we need to go to this level of difficulty for conditions that should never have approached this level," Cooke wrote in his petition addressed to county and town council members.

The town, county and Hilton Head Island Recreation Association share responsibility for operating and maintaining island fields.

Hilton Head Island Recreation Association schedules games and practices at all town-owned parks -- Crossings Park, Bristol Sports Arena, Chaplin Park, the Barker Field Extension and the Island Recreation Center. It also collects usage fees, with 75 percent going to Beaufort County Parks & Leisure Services and 25 percent to its own account.

Beaufort County maintains the fields, establishes user fees and provides money, along with the town, to pay for Island Recreation's programs.

The town and county are trying to decide how to better coordinate maintenance and ensure the many groups that use the parks are treated fairly, town manager Steve Riley said.

About $140,000 of a $3 million county parks and recreation budget goes to the town each year to compensate it for the use of town fields and pool operations at the Island Recreation Center.

That figure, however, does not include the money the county spends to maintain the fields -- a number county public information officer Joy Nelson could not immediately provide Friday.

Cooke and others believe the county should contribute more because the island accounts for about half of the county's overall tax base and 23 percent of its population in the 2010 census.

Hilton Head had $948 million in taxable value out of a total county tax base of about $1.8 billion as of March 31, according to county financial records.

"We get about 4 percent of the county PALS budget on Hilton Head, but provide services to more than 22 percent of the population," island resident and county PALS advisory board member Mike Manesiotis said. "That needs to be addressed."

County administrator Gary Kubic argues the money should instead be dispersed where it's most needed, which would probably put Hilton Head behind Bluffton and Beaufort, based on concentration of children ages 4 to 14 who most use county-supported rec facilities.

The county recently hired two consulting firms to review its Parks and Leisure Services operation, which has been fraught with staffing problems and complaints from parents and coaches.

The first consultant, who toured county facilities and conducted interviews in October, will propose improvements to sports, after-school and senior programs.

The other will consider solutions to scheduling issues and study demographic patterns to predict future demand for sports programs. Its report is due Nov. 12.

"We have competing interests about where to cut and apply more limited amounts of county money where it's most important," Kubic said. "We're saying let's base that not on where the money is generated, but where it will have the most impact."

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.

Related content:

Bob Cooke petition

Consultants reviewing Beaufort County PALS programs, personnel: Oct. 12, 2012

Hilton Head, county sort out who does what when it comes to parks: Aug. 11, 2010

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