The city says rising costs for maintenance and concerns over liability have caused fees to escalate.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — When Robin Finnegan's team won the championship of the Pat Torchia/North Adams Women's Softball League last month, she was happy, proud and just a little anxious about whether she and her teammates will have a chance to defend that title.
League organizers are wondering whether rising costs will put it on the bench. Fees to use the city's fields have tripled over the past few years, and with a new city mandate that sports groups like the Torchia League carry liability insurance, it may become too difficult for players to afford the summer activity.
But an official who helps direct the city's Parks and Recreation Department said the fee hikes are neither unnecessary nor onerous and the insurance requirement was put in place to protect both the city and the leagues themselves.
"This league has been in existence for over 33 years," said Finnegan, who was asked by league officials to speak on behalf of the Torchia League. "The last couple of years, the city hasn't been doing anything to help us maintain the field. Now they want us to pay some insurance."
To boot, Finnegan notes, the Torchia League plays on Disanti Field without the benefit of lights, something that is available to others playing on the nearby Joe Wolfe diamond.
She worries that an important recreational opportunity for residents is in jeopardy.
"If we can't afford it, what are we going to do?" Finnegan said. "A lot of this is a night out for people with their families. A lot of the women have kids who come to the games.
"All these women just want to go out and get some exercise and get some recreation."
This year, the Torchia League teams paid the city $225 per team (which came from sponsorship fees) and $20 per player, the league said. That is up from $75 per team and $5 per player in 2009.
Next year, the league expects to be charged $300 per team and $20 per player, before covering the cost of insurance.
Secretary of the city's Parks and Recreation Commission said the city's fees are not out of line.
"[The cost] goes up with the cost of utilities, energy, insurance, maintenance, things like that," Mark Vadnais said. "It's just the cost of doing business, no matter where you go.
"When I break it down by what it costs per game, it's less than a dollar a game per person. Where can you go and pay a dollar for the use of a field for maybe 2 1/2 or three hours?
"It's not like they're exorbitant fees."
The Torchia League fielded nine times in 2011. Each team plays every other team three times during the regular season, for a total of 24 games before the playoffs.
This year, all nine teams were sponsored, either by one business, like Pizza House, which won the league title, or two.
When I break it down by what it costs per game, it's less than a dollar a game per person.
— Mark Vadnais, Parks & Rec Commission
If no sponsor could be found, a team could self-sponsor and absorb next year's anticipated $300 charge. If it went that route, and assuming a 12-player roster, the per-player cost (to the city) would work out to $45 ($25 for each share of the per-team charge and $20 per player) for the season, which runs from May through August. That comes out to just less than $2 per game.
One unknown is the cost of insurance.
Vadnais said his guess for basic liability insurance for the league would be somewhere between $325 to $400. This year, the Torchia League had 122 players, meaning each would have absorbed between $2.60 and $3.28 for insurance for the season.
But that $400 fee is just a guess.
Al Giorgi, who runs the John Giorgi Summer Basketball League at the Noel Field Sports Complex, said his initial inquiries about insurance yielded estimates in excess of $5,000 for his league, which had about 300 players this year.
Al Giorgi said it was his understanding that the 31-year-old basketball league named for his father was — in the past — covered under the city's insurance. He said increasing user fees and the prospect of insurance do make it a challenge to keep the league going, but he is optimistic that he can work something out with the city.
Vadnais said it is common for towns and cities to require proof of insurance from groups that use municipal facilities.
"I think the new administration felt this is something all of the towns are doing all over Western Mass," he said. "We're trying to move forward and be in line with all the other cities and towns.
The new insurance requirements are a challenge for the John Giorgi Summer Basketball League, which also plays at the Noel Field Athletic Complex.
"We just want to protect the city and not only the people who work for Parks and Rec but also the people in charge of running the league. ... If there was a lawsuit, they could find themselves involved as well."
The Torchia League's Finnegan said her group is concerned that it is being charged more money each year for a field that is substandard.
"Me, personally, I got hurt this year," said Finnegan, who also coaches varsity softball at McCann Technical School. "I'm the one who chooses to play, and I got hurt. However, I don't need someone else contributing to that injury.
"All I was doing was jogging into second second base. There was no play at the base. I hit a rut, and — bam — I was out for four weeks. It's frustrating because if I'm getting hurt and I'm actually an athlete and I'm only 40, you can imagine what will happen if one of the older players gets hurt."
Vadnais said on Sept. 6 that the city has announced plans to resurface and address drainage issues on its softball fields, including the Disanti field where the Torchia League plays.
Some of the issues on the fields can be tied back to the groups that use them, he said.
"Sometimes our fields are left in disrepair by the groups that use the field, and the city felt it wanted to protect itself as far as some injury and someone getting sued," Vadnais said in explaining the insurance requirement. "They could inappropriately remove standing water from the field, which would leave grooves, holes, valleys, things where they shouldn't be."
Improved drainage could reduce that problem. Vadnais said he did not know when renovations will begin, but it is a challenge to squeeze the work between the end of the adult softball seasons in late August and the use by high school teams in the spring.
"If anything is going to be done, it's going to be done this fall," he said. "I don't have the time frame. ... What I do know is the city has said it is going to make repairs."
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