Proponents say artificial turf fields are safer

Ballot measure would increase property tax bills

Posted: Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Juneau voters will be asked on Oct. 2 whether to approve $3.9 million in general obligation bonds that will finance artificial turf ball fields.

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Proponents of Proposition 3 on the city ballot say artificial turf is safer than dirt, will build better skills and prolong the softball and baseball season in Juneau. They also say 1,000 children play softball and baseball in Juneau, more than soccer and football combined.

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Opponents say property owners in Juneau already pay too many taxes and wonder if too much is already spent on sports. The ballot measure would increase property tax bills by $12 for every $100,000 of assessed property value for 10 years.

The money will be used to install artificial turf and drainage at the Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park baseball facility, and the Melvin Park softball facility, both in the Mendenhall Valley. Adair-Kennedy already has a turf football and track field, but coaches say those fields aren't designed for or are safe for playing baseball.

Dirt fields take more time to dry after the snow melts. They are also muddier and provide for less traction, which means more slipping, coaches said. Balls bounce in unexpected directions and sometimes hit players in the face or the head.

Jim Ayers, who recently retired as the coach of the high school baseball team, said there's some hypocrisy in not providing safe playing fields.

"We preach to kids about setting goals in life, about improving themselves, about living safely, driving safely, having safe social habits. And as one of the kids said, what a joke. You talk to us about all that, and yet when it comes to doing something, we put kids in very high-risk situations and very unsafe conditions, and in a situation where they are going to learn bad performance habits," Ayers said.

Ayers' son Joseph grew up playing on Juneau's dirt fields and received his fair share of injuries, including a cracked cheek bone. He was drafted to play in the minor leagues for the Arizona Diamondbacks this summer. Ayers said Joseph talks about how he learned bad habits on Juneau's dirt fields that he had to overcome when he began to play on more common surfaces.

But those opposing the measure say the city and school district have the wrong priorities. Bradley Fluetsch, a financial planner, said he's not voting for the turf, pool or sales tax measures on the Oct. 2 ballot because kids "should be in the classroom studying, not at the ball fields playing." He said more emphasis should be placed on less expensive intramural sports.

"You've got to take it against what we are already spending on sports and how we are spending it on sports and compare that to the absolute horrific performance track record of this school district when it comes to graduating kids. It becomes clear we are spending money in the wrong place," Fluetsch said.

He doesn't have children, but he does pay a lot of property taxes, he said.

Some also have wondered why the ball teams cannot use the turf soccer and football fields. Ayers said the football and soccer fields are made of different kinds of turf that are not designed to have baseballs or softballs roll or bounce on it. Those fields are also long and narrow, have dangerous obstacles like goal posts, and are not designed to accommodate a baseball diamond.

"I don't think there's a kid around who hasn't taken several shots in the chops, and they become very discouraged," said Jeff Duvernay, a coach for Gastineau Channel Little League for six years.

"We are playing in conditions that no other leagues do, even in Alaska," said Duvernay, who is also a father to two softball players and one Little League player. He described himself as a fiscal conservative who is also a baseball fanatic and someone who wants to provide good opportunities to Juneau's youth.

Paulette Simpson, who has been involved in local politics for many years, said she is not sure how she will vote, but she expects some people to make decisions based on the financial numbers.

"For some people, they go down the list and just try to figure out how much money they want to give the city to spend this time," Simpson said.

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