Searcy mayor believes takeover of youth baseball program will help the city compete

SEARCY, Ark — “As a parent of two boys who play baseball, I have many concerns with the way Searcy Baseball, Inc. has run this program.”

So begins one of many letters Mayor Kyle Osborne said he has received from parents about the quality of the organization that operated the city’s youth baseball program. In response, he decided to end the partnership and have the city take over for the first time in more than 30 years.

“I don’t have this many complaints on anything,” Osborne said Tuesday. “And for the number of complaints that I’m receiving about baseball, I mean, it was just time to make a change.”

That change came after several months of discussions and negotiations.

“We had a lot of complaints about the way the facilities were being taken care of, and then, I was receiving a lot of complaints about the way that the teams were being ran,” Osborne stated.

Osborne said the conditions of the fields and accompanying facilities drew his greatest concern. He mentioned that wood on a storage shed had been allowed to rot, paint was peeling apart on some of the scorers’ booths, and safety nets had large holes in them.

According to Osborne, the agreement between the city and Searcy Baseball called for the volunteer group to maintain the baseball complex. He said parents often told him that cities such as Batesville, Cabot, Conway, and Heber Springs all had nicer places to play.

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“When they go to other communities and play, they’re just in awe at how great these facilities are. And, of course, they bring that to (my attention).”

Robert Hudgins, who runs Searcy Baseball, responded via email that maintaining the premises was actually the city’s responsibility.

“For more than thirty years,” he explained, “the agreement with the city was that the volunteers run the baseball program, using our funds, and the only assistance has been from the city to supply water, electricity, and trash pick-up if we got the trash in the cans. They were to mow the outfields and we mowed the infields. Most of the time they were behind because our city has never seen fit to fully fund our Parks and Recreation Department. Employees at the Parks and Recreation Department are hard-working individuals. Due to lack of funding, they could only do so much.

“At the end of last summer, the Mayor showed two of our city aldermen a picture of trash piled up in one of the dumpsters near the ballfields, and told the aldermen that he was going to take over baseball because of that. The aldermen informed him that a) we don’t put trash in the dumpsters that is the job of the city after we get it in the barrels, and b) we certainly don’t empty the dumpsters. Yet, he wanted to take us over.’

“He told me the reasons he wanted to take over the program was because the fences looked bad. I reminded him that even though we have replaced them twice, it is the city’s job to maintain the fences. Next, he said that the bleachers are in bad shape. The bleachers are owned by the city. They are the same bleachers that have been out there for 30 years. Most of them got banged up because the city did not have enough bleachers for all programs, so when one program ended they took the bleachers from one program to the other, and that is how they were damaged. The city never maintained them.”

Hudgins and Osborne told different stories about the offers they made to each other in recent weeks as they attempted to continue their partnership. Osborne said Searcy Baseball, which had more than 700 players last year, was unwilling to make improvements he felt were necessary. Hudgins said the city asked his group to hand over concession revenue and pay utility bills it had not paid in the past, which he said would be too much for a volunteer organization to absorb.

“None of the other programs are treated in such a fashion,” Hudgins said, referring to other recreational sports leagues in Searcy. “Yet we are the only program that provides our budget and financial reports to the city every year.”

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Osborne said the response from parents since Monday, when Searcy Baseball wrote on its Facebook page about the end of the agreement, has been overwhelmingly positive. “I have been bombarded with calls, thanking us for taking baseball over,” he stated, “and they look forward to bringing their kids back to Searcy to play baseball.”

While Osborne believes more children will join the league if the park improves, Hudgins sees the takeover as a significant financial mistake by the city. He posits that switching from volunteer labor to city employees will cost more that taxpayers will care for. He also said Searcy Baseball purchased approximately $200,000 of equipment over the years that the city will have to replace, including all the kitchen equipment in the concession stands, groundskeeping machinery, practice equipment, and nine scoreboards. He added that Searcy Baseball could sell many of the items, or sell parts that would render the systems useless, such as sprinkler controllers. He mentioned that it had sold an old scoreboard in the past to a duck hunting lodge.

Osborne sees the situation differently.

“The city owns most of the equipment out there,” he claimed, “and it was all purchased with registration fees, and concession stand fees, and gate fees from the kids and the parents.”

Searcy Baseball wrote on its website that the upcoming season would be canceled, but Osborne said it will start on time, and better than before. “We already have a gentleman in place already, and he hit the ground running,” he stated, “and he’s already setting everything up, getting ready for signups, and everything’s going to go without a hitch.”

He added that a new website will launch soon and allow parents to register their children for a team online. He expects most of the planned renovations to be completed by summer.

“[Parents are] being told that the mayor is doing away with baseball in Searcy. And when I explain to them what we’re doing, they’re absolutely elated,” he said.

Hudgins said he thinks the city will want to give the leagues back after a couple of years, but he fears they will decay under the city’s leadership to the point that volunteers may not want to take them.

“I want what’s best for the kids in Searcy,” Osborne said. “I want them to play ball. I want them to go out there and play on facilities that they can be proud of.

“The way it has been is just not what I’m looking for.”