2013-12-18 / News

With bleachers empty, Softball Nation gets a new lease

By Jim McConnell

After five months of contentious discussion, two public hearings and one county audit, debate over the future of adult softball in Chesterfield ended with little more than a whimper.

The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 last week to approve a new five-year lease with Softball Nation, the private company that has managed the county’s adult softball program and maintained two taxpayer-owned softball facilities for the past 40 months.

Noting that he was “a little uncomfortable” with the resolution of a process that began in July, Clover Hill District representative Art Warren entered the lone vote against the agreement.

“It bothers me because it’s a controversial topic and we only had one bid,” Warren said.

Softball Nation easily beat out two other vendors in 2010 to secure the original 3-year deal, which expires on Dec. 31. The public-private partnership was Chesterfield Parks and Recreation’s solution to avoid shutting down its adult softball program in the wake of a significant budget reduction.

Softball Nation since has been responsible for maintaining nine softball fields and two concession stands at Harry G. Daniel Park and the Warbro Athletic Complex.

When the county’s purchasing department initiated a request for proposals on the new softball lease last spring, and nobody other than Softball Nation submitted a proposal, it was seen by many as a tacit endorsement of the company’s operation of the fields. County supervisors were expected to approve a new contract at their July meeting.

Prior to that meeting, however, a group of concerned citizens began to probe the specifics of the existing lease and took issue with the performance of both Softball Nation and Parks and Recreation staff.

After obtaining documents related to the lease through a Freedom of Information Act request, county resident Brenda Stewart identified a number of areas in which Softball Nation had allegedly failed to comply with terms of the contract. Stewart’s findings prompted the Board of Supervisors to audit and analyze how well both the county and Softball Nation had complied with their responsibilities as outlined in the contract.

According to the county audit, which was released Sept. 16, neither party could document full compliance with 36 of 67 lease requirements. Later that month, supervisors voted to start the process over and solicit a new round of proposals from potential softball vendors.

Once again, the lone proposal received during the 30-day period came from Softball Nation.

“My position really hasn’t changed,” the company’s owner, David “Butch” Tiller, said recently. “I enjoy our relationship with Parks and Rec. They enjoyed what we’ve done. I want to continue and that’s why I submitted another proposal.”

County staff negotiated the terms of the new lease with Tiller, then submitted it to supervisors prior to last week’s meeting.

This time, only two people came forward to comment on the matter.

Calling the new lease “a flawed document with inadequate protections for taxpayers’ considerable investment in these facilities,” Stewart asked supervisors to reject it.

She took particular issue with Softball Nation slashing its annual rent payments to the county from $65,000 to $30,000, insisting that there was no basis for the reduction.

She also noted that the request for proposals specified that vendors must have $500,000 in workers’ compensation insurance, but that county staff agreed to let Softball Nation carry a $100,000 policy instead.

“This proposed lease is not in the best interest of Chesterfield taxpayers,” Stewart said.

The other speaker, Sarah Parker, expressed her belief that “some people still aren’t seeing the big picture.”

“The county was going to do away with adult softball until Mr. Tiller basically rescued it,” she said. “He doesn’t do this purely for money, but for love of the game and people who play it.”

Mike Golden, director of Chesterfield Parks and Recreation, claimed that the county has saved nearly $900,000 over the past three years by outsourcing management of its adult softball program.

He also cited steps his department has taken to address gaps in its oversight of the agreement with Softball Nation.

Chesterfield Parks and Recreation staff will now check on a weekly basis to make sure Tiller’s employees are addressing every item on a list of routine maintenance projects – from cutting grass to picking up trash.

Maintenance staff also have installed devices on pipes that carry water to the adult softball fields at Daniel Park so the county can bill Softball Nation for all the water it uses there. Previously, the county had to estimate the company’s water usage because the softball complex shares a water meter with a Chesterfield Parks and Recreation maintenance facility.

“It took a lot of time,” Golden said, “but we do have a better lease now.”

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