Jamison Heitger fights off boredom as he waits for his turn to bat during his last little league baseball game of the season held at the Scott Township Baseball fields in Evansville, Indiana, June 5, 2017. Staff photo by SAM OWENS | Evansville Courier & Press
In Vanderburgh County's fastest-growing area, township government is trying — at taxpayer expense and with limited success — to revive a youth softball and baseball tradition.
"Hey, I could start a township library if I wanted to," Scott Township Trustee Bob Harris said of his office's ownership of the 12-acre Scott Baseball park off U.S. 41 in northern Vanderburgh County. Harris pointed to Ohio Township in Warrick County, which operates a publicly funded library system.
It was one of many previously unknown expenses a Courier & Press investigation discovered at the hands of Indiana’s largest, but rarely seen, form of government.
Harris acquired the deed to the once-bustling sports complex in March 2013. He said he believes his effort to return the decades-old ballpark to prominence is a public service to Scott Township. The township also runs 35-acre Scott Township Park, which has walking trails, two children's playgrounds, picnic space, shelter houses and a lake.
"Where else can they go? Vanderburgh County hasn't got any parks in Scott Township," he said.
There's nothing illegal about this, although other local township governments don't do it. Indiana's elected township trustees have wide latitude to shape their missions to their own perceptions of what is needed. The State Board of Accounts specifically states that trustees may "provide and maintain township parks and community centers."
The taxpayer money now spent on recreation is not preventing Harris from distributing poor relief, one of the core functions of township government. There isn't much demand for poor relief in Scott Township. State data shows last year that Scott Township spent $564 on assisting the indigent.
In the void, Harris has crafted what he calls a "service-type, quality of life" mission for his office.
In 1995, Harris spearheaded the township's launch of its own paramedic ambulance service — believing Scott's fire department could transport patients to hospitals faster than the private company that provided city-county service. He led the way when the township floated a 10-year bond in 2003 to buy land on Schlensker Road for Scott Township Park. He also engineered the new Scott Township Fire Territory, a financial partnership with Armstrong Township and the town of Darmstadt that paid for an infusion of manpower and equipment.
In fact, the township's sprawling, multi-jurisdiction fire protection program is where most of the money went last year. Scott Township spent nearly $2.7 million in 2016, more than $2.5 million of it on fire protection and emergency medical response.
It is entirely appropriate that Scott Township taxpayers are also footing the bill for a sports complex, Harris said.
"We're getting more and more people, but we're not getting the things that make the quality of life better," he said.
Scott Township residents do have other places to go. County government doesn't maintain any parks in the township, but the privately-owned and funded Vanderburgh 4-H Center is just a mile up U.S. 41 from Scott Baseball — and 4-H offers a playground, paved areas for walking and a lake. The 4-H Center also has shelters and acres of grassy open area that are available for rent.
Much of the youth baseball and softball in Vanderburgh County is run out of facilities located just a few miles from Scott Township's government-run park — at Deaconess Sports Park, McCutchanville Community Park, Highland Baseball Club and Stringtown Community Club. But those programs aren't funded primarily by local income and property tax dollars, as is Scott Baseball.
Scott Township residents also are eligible to participate in any of the Evansville Parks and Recreation Department's taxpayer-funded sports programs — but Harris said they shouldn't have to drive into the city to play a little ball.
Harris, an activist trustee since his election in 1982, got township government into the youth baseball and softball game because he felt a call to prevent the largely dormant ballpark property from becoming a gas station or a strip mall. But mostly because he believes part of the response to Scott Township's explosive growth needs to come from township government.
"We're traditionally a small farming community, and now we're getting so many people," he said.
Northern Vanderburgh County has experienced explosive growth for decades, and there's no letup in sight. Jobs, available land and good schools make the area a magnet, with the largest local rates of population and housing growth for the past 25 years. Local planners expect Scott Township to grow in population by 34 percent by 2035.
But while the other area sports complexes teemed with players and coaches in the heat of youth baseball and softball seasons this year, there weren't many bodies at Scott Baseball park in the third season of its comeback.
Depending on which side you ask, a combination of scheduling and personality conflicts and field maintenance issues ended with six girls softball feeder teams for North High School leaving after last season to play games six miles south at Deaconess Sports Park. Four boys baseball teams bowed out in search of larger ballfields or for lack players.
The only teams that played home games at Scott Baseball park this season were a T-ball outfit (ages 3-4) and a Shetland team, for which players are five or six years old. A handful of travel teams still practice there, their organizations perform grounds work in lieu of rent.
Plans for fall baseball were shelved, but Harris is undaunted. He has plowed tens of thousands of local property and income tax dollars into new equipment, concession stand improvements and grounds work. Last year, he laid out $5,045 for a new scoreboard. This year, the township bought two more scoreboards for about $10,000. The old ones didn't work anymore, Harris said. Insurance for the township's two parks costs almost $6,000 annually.
Defections or not, Harris intends to charge ahead with his vision to make Scott Baseball park a major local sports designation. The plan is to keep ramping up the baseball and softball operation until the grounds, equipment and concessions stand are up to snuff. Once the complex attracts a full complement of teams, it will run day-to-day on private money — player registration fees, ticket sales, donations and concession stand proceeds. Those sources generated $12,386 last year, when the girls softball and boys baseball teams were on board, according to township records.
But for now at least, most of the money for Scott Baseball park comes from taxpayers.
"The day before yesterday, I bought a steel shipping container for $3,200 because I could buy it cheaper than I could put up another yard barn," Harris said in late April. "It's to store things at the baseball diamond. It'll be there for years and years.
"What I'm doing now is an investment for the future."
Competition from other northern Vanderburgh County sports complexes and programs — and Scott Baseball park's topography — pose stern challenges to the township's prospects to turn it into a premier sports complex.
Located in a federally designated Special Flood Hazard Area, the low-lying ballpark is vulnerable to rainouts. It was a prime factor in the girls softball teams' decision to cease playing home games there, said their league commissioner.
"The fields were in really bad shape. One of our teams only got to play five of their 12 games all season," said Darrell Grigsby, commissioner of Southern Indiana Cub Softball. "Just a little bit of rain and the fields were terrible.”
Other issues contributed to the soured relationship.
Grigsby said Harris pushed for all the league's feeder teams to play their games at Scott Baseball park, a favor he didn't have the power to grant. Harris denied that charge and made one of his own — that Southern Indiana Cub Softball had too many teams that wanted to play games at the same time and too few diamonds to accommodate them.
Playing at Scott Baseball park was a hassle, Grigsby said.
"You had to be there probably at least an hour earlier than everybody because you have to drag the field, you have to stripe your field, you have to get some parents to go sit in the concessions stand. You have to set up somebody to take the gate. It's a huge deal just to get a home game off," he said.
"At Deaconess Sports Park, all the coaches have to do is walk in and play and walk out. They don't have to worry about getting muddy fields ready and stuff like that."
Moving Southern Indiana Cub Softball's games to the $16.5 million, two-year-old Deaconess Sports Park was a no-brainer, Grigsby said.
The Convention & Visitors Bureau, which owns and operates the eight-field sports complex adjacent to Goebel Soccer Complex, boasts of its "state of the art amenities" for softball and baseball and its "full-time staff, grounds crew and seasonal staff ensuring the complex and its visitors are well cared for." The facility's construction costs were covered by innkeepers tax revenue, which is paid by visitors to Evansville and Vanderburgh County. Innkeepers tax also pays its $800,000-plus operating budget.
It is a point that CVB and city officials make every chance they get.
"If there's one point that I hope comes through in your article, it's that Deaconess Sports Park hasn't cost the local taxpayer anything," CVB Executive Director Bob Warren said. "(Innkeepers tax) is a lodging tax that's paid for by the visitors that come to our city and stay in our hotels."
Harris knows township government can't possibly compete with the multi-million-dollar, innkeeper tax-funded edifice that is Deaconess Sports Park. He doesn't have the budget.
League and travel teams playing at Scott Baseball park may not like having to provide labor before and after games, the trustee said, but that saves taxpayers the expense of hiring professionals. It saves the teams the expense of paying rent, too — a cost Harris said they would surely pass on to players.
But the fact remains, against Deaconess Sports Park's professional staff the township must rely on coaches, parents, players and volunteers to get its fields leveled and graded to withstand rain.
Taxpayers bear the cost of materials.
Last year the township spent $4,888 for field conditioner. Harris said in the spring he spent about $1,000 for another ton of the stuff. It had been applied twice by mid-summer, on two separate fields.
All taxpayers in Vanderburgh County pay these bills — not just those who live in Scott Township.
Alone among Vanderburgh County's eight townships, Scott charges a property tax rate for recreation of 0.15 cents per $100 of assessed value. According to county auditor's office data, the rate will generate slightly more than $9,000 this year if every taxpayer pays their taxes.
That rate is charged only to Scott Township residents. But the township's total recreation expenses at Scott Baseball and the park on Schlensker Road were nearly seven times that high last year. Most of the money comes from the township's allotment of local income tax proceeds.
And all local taxpayers contribute to that pot of money.
There is a way for Scott Baseball park to justify its expenditures of public money and reverse its downward trajectory, said Ben Garland, a veteran boys baseball coach and a stalwart supporter of Scott Township's bid to get into the youth sports game. But it's going to take time, money and work.
Garland's remarks, made during a rainy period in early May, suggested the grounds were still in questionable condition even after two full seasons of play.
"Yes, right now with all the rain we're getting, the outfields are under water," he said. "But in a month, when the rain's done and once the outfield dries, that complex will be — if time and effort and some tender loving care is put into it, it could be very usable facilities."
Garland, who coached a team at Scott Baseball last year, said he and his current travel team worked on the park's boys baseball diamond throughout the spring with an eye toward practicing there in the summer with two other teams. He aimed to host a summer tournament at the park, but Harris said that didn’t happen.
"It's a matter of getting people who know what they're doing and willing to have the dedication to work on (the fields) — and that's hard," Garland said.
But even if the township overcame all of the facility-related challenges facing Scott Baseball park, the taxpayer-funded complex likely would continue to face serious competition for teams.
Tim Bell, commissioner of the Evansville Rural Baseball League's 13- and 14-year-old Pony division, said a confluence of competing affiliations and venues for young baseball players is pulling them in directions leading away from Scott Baseball park.
"A lot of boys are not playing league ball anymore, and they're just playing travel ball only (and thus have no home field). That's hurt Scott field," said Bell, who also coaches a Reitz High School girls softball feeder team in the Southern Indiana Cub Softball league.
A costly separation
Thousands of extra taxpayer dollars have been spent since fall 2014 because Harris fired a local management corporation that he had hired to run the ballpark in the first season of its planned renaissance.
The relationship between Harris and Northside Sports Club Inc. — parents of softball players who incorporated — ended in a hail of charges and counter charges over several facility and financial issues. And then there was one last knife fight, this one over equipment.
To hear Harris tell it, Northside Sports Club absconded with all the baseball and softball equipment that was worth anything in a fit of pique over being fired — even equipment that was too old to use, like pitching machines that Harris said the Civic Club bought in the 1970s, when he was its president. The township was left with junk.
"They took anything that wasn't tied down," Harris said, acknowledging that he can't prove the accusation. "I was going to go after the equipment, but (the township's attorney) said, 'You're probably better off just buying new because by the time you pay me and we go through court and everything, you're going to probably spend about as much.'"
But Nick Shrull, president of the now-defunct Northside, said his organization bought Scott Baseball's newer equipment with money it made from sales of concessions, tournament fees and user fees. After Harris severed the relationship, Shrull said, Northside donated all the equipment to other baseball and softball programs.
The township may have owned the land, Shrull said, but the equipment rightfully belonged to Northside Sports Club.
"Anything that touched that property, (Harris) thought belonged to him," he said.
Harris fired back that the equipment "belongs to the people of Scott Township. They're the ones that donated the money to buy it." He doesn't believe Northside ever bought any new equipment.
Whichever side was right, local taxpayers were left to pick up the pieces. In the season that followed Northside's dismissal, taxpayers absorbed equipment startup and grounds keeping costs for a baseball and softball facility that had already been in operation for a full season.
The tab included $2,600 for two baseball pitching machines, $2,649 for field maintenance equipment to drag dirt fields, $1,400 for a softball machine and transport cart, $645 for five bases and $398 for two batter's box chalkers.
Harris also plowed public money into the grounds and facility, including $3,528 as a down payment on a riding lawnmower and $3,280 for concessions stand utilities. Thirty-two hundred dollars went to Jeff Niemeier — husband of then-Scott Township Parks Board President Linda Niemeier — for cutting grass at the ballpark and the park on Schlensker Road.
Those expenses didn't exist during the 2014 season, Shrull said, because Northside Sports Club paid for utilities and most maintenance costs. Shrull said he and another Northside board member did the mowing on their personal lawnmowers.
"Our agreement (with the township) was, we paid a dollar to rent the property for the whole season," he said. "The township didn't pay us anything, but in return we got to keep the money we made. The township got kids using their park, and they paid almost nothing to maintain it."
Harris confirmed the arrangement, adding that the township did pay for some of the grounds maintenance, concessions stand improvements and utilities.