SLC little leaguers, dogged by soaring baseball field rental fees, will get some relief

The City Council is expected to lower field rental rates for youth sports leagues.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Evie Gaisford, 9, pitches during baseball practice at Oak Hills Ball Diamonds in Salt Lake City in March 2024. Youth leagues are expected to get a break on rates for field rentals.

Salt Lake City’s little leaguers may not have to pay so much to play ball after all.

City Council members are scheduled Tuesday to consider reducing field rental fees for youth sports leagues, bringing relief to organizations that have said a recent spike in rates threatened their existence.

As the city focuses on being family-friendly, Mayor Erin Mendenhall said Monday, accessibility to youth sports is one place residents said they needed help. The fee reduction will affect all youth sports programs, not just baseball.

“Every resident knows that the costs of water are not going down in the western United States,” Mendenhall said. “These are some of the real reasons that fees increase on our parks, but the value of supporting families and kids’ access to sports programs is absolutely worth our investment.”

Mendenhall’s administration is asking the council to lower rental fees from $18 an hour to $10. Council members are slated to fast-track the changes by suspending council rules and adopting the lower rental rates during Tuesday night’s formal meeting.

In fiscal 2023, the city axed rental fee discounts for nonprofit and charitable organizations to better comply with state law, affecting youth leagues’ ability to rent fields.

This year, leaders of two Salt Lake City nonprofit youth baseball leagues said the extra costs they have faced run the risk of collapsing their organizations or forcing them to raise registration fees to a point where few would or could participate.

Fears for the future persist

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Foothill Youth Baseball Association plays its games on theses fields, shown in March. Youth leagues are expected to get some relief on field rental rates.

Foothill Youth Baseball Association President August Wachter has said the increased rates left him having to cover an expected $20,000 tab for his spring and fall seasons. Rose Park Baseball President James Walje, meanwhile, has said he would be challenged to cover the anticipated $13,000 price tag for his spring season this year.

Mendenhall said the general fund will be able to absorb the annual $57,000 cost of lowering the rental rates without the city having to boost fees elsewhere.

Her proposed budget for the coming fiscal year includes additional relief for youth leagues that have been forced to pay higher rates. The mayor is asking council members to approve reimbursements to leagues for the difference between the new $10-an-hour rental rate and what they paid to rent fields over the past two years.

In an interview Monday, Wachter said while a reimbursement would be a fair solution to help recuperate league losses and that he can’t be displeased with an overall fee reduction, he fears the new rate structure will lead to a future battle to lower costs if fees rise over time.

“That,” he said, “puts us right back where we are.”

Wachter said he would prefer an entirely new structure similar to Salt Lake County’s in which leagues are charged a per-participant fee for a season and the county does all the necessary field maintenance and preparations.

Making it ‘family-friendly’

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Evie Gaisford, 9, bats during baseball practice at Oak Hills Park in Salt Lake City in March 2024. The city is expected to reduce field rental rates for youth leagues.

While City Council Chair Victoria Petro is open to a new fee structure similar to the county’s, she said the entire budget season is going to be about deferred maintenance, and she doubts the city would be able to make good on commitments to devote such resources to fields.

She does, however, anticipate the city’s proposed rate changes to pass Tuesday.

“Why are we charging them exorbitant rates to use a field,” she said, “especially while negotiating below-market leases for larger entities?

Petro said lowering the rental fee to $10 an hour is “a good band-aid” to offer youth sports leagues some reprieve. In the future, she wants youth development leagues to more easily wipe out the entirety of their rental fees with volunteer hours, from time spent coaching to time spent chalking infields.

And whenever the mayor sends the council her proposal to reimburse the youth leagues for higher fees they have paid in the past, Petro predicted it would pass.

Forcing leagues to pay high fees is not an option, she said, adding that having access to youth sports makes the city a great place to live.

“This is what makes it family-friendly. This is what keeps our kids healthy. This is what keeps our communities bound,” she said. “This is a good investment for the city, and we should never depend on recreational league revenue from our young people to maintain things. It’s not a paradigm I’ll ever endorse.”