Crestwood mayor takes on soccer club
August 10, 2013 8:52PM
A welcome sign at the Crestwood soccer fields on land owned by ComEd but leased to Crestwood, which has allowed the Crestwood Soccer Club use of the land rent-free for 20 years. | Phil Kadner~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 6, 2013 8:59PM
Members of the privately run Crestwood Soccer Club are outraged by what they view as a government takeover.
Crestwood Mayor Lou Presta contends he’s merely trying to open up what should be a public park to every child in the village who wants to use it.
Soccer club officials, however, maintain that the entire matter is an extension of the nasty April mayoral campaign between Presta and Trustee John Toscas.
Toscas is president of the not-for-profit Soccer Club.
No one argues that the club, which has been in existence for more than 40 years, is wildly successful.
It has more than 500 children signed up for its fall season, about 70 percent Crestwood residents and the rest from the surrounding suburbs.
At issue are the soccer fields just south of 138th Street and Lavergne Avenue, which are on ComEd land overlooked by high-tension towers.
According to soccer club board members, 32 years ago former Mayor Chester Stranczek agreed to let the club use the property rent-free after the village signed an agreement with the utility company for use of its easement.
Volunteers with the soccer club leveled the land by hand, raised money to construct a $22,000 fence and gate, more money to buy soccer goals and an additional $13,000 to build a garage to house equipment.
The village eventually paid for a “clubhouse” that serves as a refreshment stand.
Rob McKay, who grew up playing for the soccer club and now is a coach and board member, says village officials never wanted to take responsibility for the league or the soccer fields.
“All the village does is cut the grass,” he said. “Volunteers have built this thing up over the decades into a wonderful organization for children, and now the government wants to come in and take it over, mess it all up.”
Funds to operate the club are raised by charging a $75 registration fee to each child, soliciting local businesses as sponsors and candy sales by children, McKay said.
“I moved to Frankfort, but now I take my own children to Crestwood to play soccer because the experience meant so much to me,” McKay, 36, said.
“The friends I made playing soccer are my friends today.”
McKay has organized a protest demonstration outside the Crestwood Village Hall, 138th Street and Cicero Avenue, for 3 to 5 p.m. Tuesday.
He also sent out emails calling for soccer club supporters to show up at Thursday’s village board meeting at 8 p.m. in the Crestwood Civic Center.
“I’m going to do everything in my power to stop this,” McKay said. “This isn’t about the kids. We’ve done great things for the kids.
“We have 40 recreation teams and five travel teams in the club. People from throughout the suburbs come to our fields and marvel at what we have done here.
“Nobody gets paid. We’re all volunteers.”
Presta said he became concerned about the soccer club when he heard they were chasing local children off the soccer fields and charging other organizations for their use.
Soccer club officials admit they charge Incarnation Catholic School $1,500 a year to use the fields.
A “no trespassing” sign was placed on a locked gate because of vandalism, soccer club officials contend.
“You don’t chase children out of a public park if no one is using it,” Presta said. “That’s just not right. The parks are there for everyone to use.”
But the soccer club fields aren’t a public park right now, something Presta wants to change.
A proposed village ordinance would create a new seven-member parks commission appointed by the mayor, and create a new position of director of parks and recreation.
Presta told me the position would be filled by a current village employee at no increase in salary.
But the ordinance says compensation for the director “shall be established by the board of trustees annually.”
While the soccer fields on ComEd property are not specifically mentioned in the ordinance, the mayor said he considers the land to be one of the four public parks in Crestwood.
“Toscas claims he has a lease to use the property, but when I asked him to show me the lease he said it was a handshake agreement between him and (former Mayor) Stranczek.
“Well, Chester Stranczek is gone. The ComEd lease with the village is coming up for renewal (June 30, 2014). And as far as I’m concerned that’s a public park.”
Not only that, Presta indicated he wants the soccer club to share the money it raises with the rest of the village’s recreational programs.
“Some recreation programs make money and some don’t,” Presta said. “I believe the money should be spread around so that those that make money can help support those that don’t to provide opportunities to everyone.
“And I would like to see how the money gets spent by the soccer club because we don’t want people making money off our parks. We want to make sure everything is being done properly.”
The proposed parks commission ordinance contains a clause that states “All eligible organizations (who want to use the parks) shall supply annual compiled or audited statements, prepared by a professional accountant, demonstrating reasonable accounting controls and responsible financial practices.”
McKay said he resents the implication that soccer club board members are financially benefitting.
“All we care about is the kids,” McKay said. “This is all about politics, not the kids.” Toscas said that as president of the soccer club, he would not vote on the ordinance because “I have a conflict of interest.”
The issue certainly smacks of a political vendetta.
However, I can’t ignore Presta’s main point. If the village is donating a public space to a private organization, that space should also be available to the general public for its use.
Reasonable people should be able to work this out. I’m not sure that can happen in Crestwood.