Volunteers propose rec. program solution

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

While the Ridgecrest City Council contemplates deep cuts to services across the board in order to close a $1.3-million budget shortfall (see related story, this page), one group of volunteers in the community is proposing an alternate situation that can preserve recreation programs for local youth at a greatly reduced cost to the city.

Mike Tosti, who has lived in Ridgecrest since the 1960s and during that time coached and officiated virtually every sport in a variety of venues, said that he has already lined up sponsors, coaches and a maintenance crew to take over the programs currently being run at the LeRoy Jackson complex.

Last month Ridgecrest Parks and Recreation Director Jim Ponek approached the county and asked it for $175,000 annually to maintain the land, which is owned by Kern but leased by the city to run programs. The county said it did not have such funds available. Kern P&R Director Bob LeRude said the county’s solution for similar budget woes was to lease its facilities at no cost to community organizations, provided that they shoulder the responsibility to maintain them and keep programs open to the public.

Tosti said that’s exactly what his proposal would do.

But he said while he has heard encouraging support from members of council, Ponek did not seem to be interested in such a program.

That concept has been embraced, however, by Kern County, said 1st District Supervisor Mick Gleason. He pointed out that the county has successfully been employing that approach for years.

“Given the financial challenges facing both Ridgecrest and Kern County, it is going to take these kinds of actions to position ourselves so that the community in general — and our children specifically — will continue to have access to those facilities and resources that only government can provide,” said Gleason.

“The bottom line is that services need to be provided. Period,” said Paul Vander Werf, another experienced athletics official working with Tosti. “It’s not ‘if’ we provided them, it’s a matter of finding who. When times are tough economically, you ask if it will be schools or nonprofits or churches or the city. But the truth is we need everyone working together on this.”

Both Tosti and Vander Werf pointed out that there are other successful models in California of volunteer organizations running recreation programs for the city.

Tosti said that Desert Area Resources and Training is prepared to take on maintenance, that numerous local businesses have already agreed to sponsor teams and that droves of residents — particularly those who worry about losing programs altogether — have come together to volunteer to organize such a program.

Although there would still be costs for running the program, those are expected to be much lower than what the city is spending.

“There are a lot of people in our community who left the city leagues because they didn’t have any say in the process. I think this is one way that we could get all those people to come back and get involved in a way that allows us to save these programs for the kids,” said Tosti.

“We have the garden clubs and the Ridge Project — so many organizations in town that are already invested in community. I don’t think we have a lack of interest or a shortage of volunteers, I think we just need a place for them to be involved.”

Vander Werf said that Ponek has been unwilling to incorporate those volunteers because he said they cannot be relied upon. “But if that’s his argument, do we have quality maintenance of our parks right now? I think we have to look at other alternatives.”

He said this is also a way to encourage the youth to take pride in their community. “I read that there were some kids who caused flooding in Pearson Park. When you have the young people engaged in helping take care of our parks, they become motivated to help preserve them, not to vandalize them.”

Tosti added that in a small and isolated community, not having the option of recreation programs for youth is out of the question. “This is for the kids. Let’s not forget that.”

Story First Published: 2013-05-01