March 26, 2017

Youth baseball official frustrated by city’s tag days stance

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Patrick Sargent/For Worcester Sun

Where Cross, East Central and Shamrock streets meet Shrewsbury -- cross at your own risk.

With funding for youth sports leagues becoming increasingly difficult to come by in some corners of the city, Nick D’Andrea, secretary/treasurer for East Side Babe Ruth, remains disappointed in the city’s apparent disinterest in regulating the practice of “tag days,” which used to generate thousands of dollars per season for his and similar organizations.

“They keep kicking that can down the road,” said D’Andrea, who brought the issue before City Council last April with support from first-term Councilor-at-large Khrystian King.

Sun archives: King brings tag days debate back before council

City spokesman John Hill said safety and legal concerns prevent the city from condoning or supporting so-called tag days, when local organizations, such as youth sports teams, would apply for permits from the city and stand at intersections to solicit donations from motorists. For example, many remember the firefighters’ Boot Drive for Multiple Sclerosis.

“At the council’s request last April, the city manager asked the law department to investigate the idea of reinstating the Tag Day ordinance, which has been repealed upon implementation of the city’s panhandling ordinances in 2013,” Hill wrote in an email statement to the Sun.

“The law department recommended not implementing a new Tag Day ordinance for two reasons: first, because of the risks to persons and property arising out of Tag Day events; and, second, because it would place the city in the untenable legal position of requiring a permit for an activity which constitutionally requires no permit.”

Hill pointed out there’s nothing stopping leagues from holding tag days.

“Due to the ruling of the U.S. District Court in Worcester in the case of Thayer v. Worcester, it is now settled law that anyone can peacefully solicit donations from vehicles in the travelled ways and stopped at red lights,” Hill wrote.

Courtesy East Side Babe Ruth

East Side Babe Ruth is looking for fundraising help.

Upheld in a federal appeals court in June 2014, the aggressive panhandling ordinances advanced by former City Manager Michael V. O’Brien in 2013 were overturned in November 2015 by Judge Timothy S. Hillman in U.S. District Court, who deemed them unconstitutional based on a June 2015 Supreme Court decision, thus opening the door for the return of tag days.

“When I brought this issue up, I was looking for guidance to ensure people [were] hosting tag days in the safest way possible. Given the fact that there are no rules or parameters, it might make sense for the city to come up with guidelines,” King said.

The city’s previous tag day guidelines included that all tag day participants had to be at least be 16 years old; were to remain on sidewalks, street corners and medians at intersections; and were to be identifiable by the organization they were representing (e.g., wearing a baseball uniform).

Before the law was repealed it stipulated permits issued by the chief of police must specify the days and intersections each group planned to use.

The police department “used to give us strict guidelines and told us to make sure we had the permit, we needed a ratio of one adult for every five children, and we couldn’t do tag days in consecutive weeks,” D’Andrea said.

Worcester Police spokesman Sgt. Kerry Hazelhurst wrote in a statement to the Sun that the department is currently guided by the city’s laws and the federal court ruling, but it had been heavily involved in ensuring the safety of participants when permits were issued.

Our thoughts: Putting brakes on tag days is right call

“In the past, when Tag Day events did take place, route officers involved in those particular areas, when time allowed, made extra patrols to monitor the area. Our main concern is public safety, if it was determined that the event in question would pose a greater public safety risk/concern then it would be addressed accordingly,” Hazelhurst wrote.

“If the nature of [the] event dictated that a dedicated police officer(s) would be required to ensure public safety [then] that request would be a stipulation towards obtaining a permit. That decision would be based on a case by case situation.”

Courtesy Tom Ash Little League

Tom Ash had about 80 participants in its Little League program last season. D’Andrea said East Side’s numbers are dwindling.

D’Andrea believes the lack of urgency from the city manager’s office stems from other league officials’ reticence to rock the boat.

“I’ve reached out to several other leagues and they’re hesitant to speak up because they’re nervous that we will lose what little we do get from the city already if they do,” D’Andrea said.

The city Parks, Recreation & Cemetery Division budget has set aside money to supplement youth leagues since 2013.

“When the ordinance was removed, the city implemented a line in the budget to help fund youth sports programs across the city to make up for some of the revenue lost,” Hill said. “That line item, which leagues are contacted about and must apply for reimbursement from annually, was $40,000 in the most recent parks division budget.”

D’Andrea surmised that gives each league roughly $800 for a season, which he said “wouldn’t get us through the first two weeks.”

D’Andrea, a 2015 School Committee candidate who has again taken out nomination papers from the city clerk’s office, said East Side Babe Ruth already finds itself $2,000 in debt to vendors from last year and player registrations are down nearly 50 percent from 2016.

The registration fee for East Side is $125 per player for the season. Payment plans are available.

“None of the leagues want to speak up. It doesn’t mean that they don’t want it,” he said. “It’s a sensitive topic because we get money from the city every year, but that pales in comparison to what we used to raise,” he said.

D’Andrea said a weekend-long tag day event, historically, could raise between $1,500 and $4,000.

“We only have a set amount of funds available for all of the needs a city the size of Worcester has,” said King, a longtime organizer of the Crompton Summer Basketball League. “There’s only a certain pot to draw from. If those teams need more, we shouldn’t be preventing them from fundraising in any fashion. We should, however, probably encourage those folks to fundraise in the safest way possible.

“For some people, they will raise funds through social media and GoFundMe campaigns,” he said. “But there’s also some folks that may want to avail themselves to tag days. And there’s nothing currently that prevents them from doing so.”

District 5 Councilor Gary Rosen, who has announced plans to run for an at-large council seat this November, was among other councilors seeking tag day clarification last April.

“It remains important to me and to many other folks in our city who are concerned about the safety of youth and adults collecting money in the streets at busy intersections,” Rosen told the Sun recently.

Panhandling ordinance or not, the city simply doesn’t want people of any age walking in the streets, Hill said.

“We cannot require a permit for such actions, as the previous Tag Day ordinance did,” he wrote. “We also do not want to create the appearance the City condones these activities, which the City considers dangerous.”

King believes there is a compromise to be had.

“This doesn’t have to be an “either-or” thing. There’s no reason to punish anyone for raising funds for kids,” King said. “There are a certain group of kids that will benefit from tag days, and I hope that we do what we can to make sure that they’re safe, if that’s what they choose to do.”

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