Leaders of two recreational youth sports organizations say they don’t believe they should be required to pay for water coming from a city-owned well to take care of city-owned soccer and football fields, but city officials have locked the well pump and want them to pay more than $2,200 before they use any more water.
A bill from the City of Liberty Hill shows the Liberty Hill Youth Soccer Association owes $1,468.65 for water.
Presidents of both organizations say they don’t believe they should be required to pay for the water because they contribute so much to the upkeep of the park.
“We aren’t just squatters. We are contributing to the well-being of the park,” said Michael Wilson, president of Liberty Hill Youth Football & Cheer. He said his organization has been billed twice for water, with the combined total near $800.
“We haven’t paid it (the bill) because we don’t believe we should have been billed in the first place,” said newly-elected soccer association President Richard Marshall.
Tempers escalated last Friday when Marshall was confronted by city officials at the park on CR 200 as he was trying to water. He said volunteers had just planted grass seed and were attempting to water each field for five minutes — “long enough to keep the seed from blowing away.”
City Manager Manuel De La Rosa, who was not available to speak with The Independent this week, Mayor Michele “Mike” Murphy and Liberty Hill police officers arrived at the park and the discussion became heated.
“I thought that they would have had the police arrest us if they had found anything at all wrong with anything back there (in the well area),” Marshall said.
“I don’t know how the gathering happened. I was late to the party,” said Mayor Murphy. She said she was riding her motorcycle in the area and “saw them all down there. I wanted to see what was going on.”
Mayor Murphy said she was only somewhat familiar with the situation, but believes the soccer and football organizations should pay the City for the water.
“They’ve been using water all this time and they should be glad the City didn’t make them pay for all of that,” she said. “I know people feel a sense of ownership, but they need to honor the contract they have with the City and pay their bills.”
City Park, a 22.8-acre tract of land, was donated to the City in 2004 by the Greater Liberty Hill Charitable Foundation. At that time, there were unpaid property taxes on the land and the City agreed to pay those as a condition of accepting the donation.
Before the City’s acquisition of the property, the land had been cleared and improved for soccer fields with the financial support and labor of area parents and businesses that donated materials and equipment.
The soccer and football associations each have 10-year lease agreements with the City, which expire in 2017. Each organization paid $1 per year to lease the property, and according to the contracts are responsible for paying for utilities.
Wilson, who has met with De La Rosa about the water bills and is hoping to reach some sort of compromise with the City, said his understanding of the contract was that the organization would pay for electricity to operate the pump and sprinkler system — not for water use.
In 2008, LHYFC built a football field complete with bleachers, an electronic scoreboard and a concession stand on the north end of the property. Wilson estimated the value of the improvements made to the land total upwards of $300,000 — most of which was donated. Earlier this year, lights were added to the field.
When the football field was under construction, the City spent about $20,000 from Economic Development Corp. funds to dig a second well on the property, said Councilman Charles Canady. There was one well and two above-ground tanks, but as the water table dropped and the first well was pumped dry, the well pump was damaged and it became necessary to drill another one, he said.
Canady said that while the previous Council may not have intended the organizations to pay for water, he agrees now with De La Rosa and Mayor Murphy that they should pay like other water customers.
“Manny (De La Rosa) has a different outlook. They need to pay electricity and also water like anyone else would, and I can see that,” said Canady. “They use an enormous amount of water out there.”
Since drought conditions worsened last summer, City water customers have been prohibited from outdoor watering. The City obtained five water wells in its acquisition of the Liberty Hill Water Supply Corp. in the fall and at times, not all of the wells have been functional. The City is in the process of constructing two additional wells to increase its water supply.
Marshall said the soccer association did not water at all during the summer months.
“Keep in mind that nobody else can water now,” said Mayor Murphy. “I don’t think the City should be gifting the soccer association so it can make money. It looks like we are subsidizing the soccer association and football camp. The City can’t be subsidizing a private entity.”
However, for some time, the City paid to have the grass mowed at Lions Foundation Park, which is not owned by the City. When reminded of that arrangement, Mayor Murphy said the City is no longer paying for that.
She said the City Manager asked soccer officials for a demographic breakdown of the children who play in the league in an effort to determine the percentage who reside within the city limits.
Marshall said LHYSA does not have that information and Board members are not familiar enough with area streets to know who lives within city boundaries.
Wilson said his organization does not maintain that information either.
“I question whether this (soccer and football fields) is the highest and best use for a city park,” the Mayor said. “City residents might benefit if we change the use of the park. That park is the only city property we have.
“My personal opinion, and I haven’t talked to anyone else (on the City Council) about this, is that I’d like to find a place for a water feature. I think more people in the city would benefit from that,” she said, adding that she was “not a big fan of soccer and my kids didn’t play.”
The City of Liberty Hill has made repeated attempts to obtain state grants to make improvements to the park, but have not been successful.
A grant from Williamson County, however, will help pay for the construction of a restroom facility at the park. Currently, the associaitons pay for portable toilet service. They also pay for garbage collection.
Marshall and the Mayor agreed the conversation at the park last week was confrontational, but both are hopeful that they can reach some sort of middle ground.
“The water rate could be discussed if there was a discussion,” she said. “Although I’m seriously not in charge of that, I think if a representative of a sports association sets down to bring concerns in a polite manner, they will be dealt with politely. But, when they go straight for the jugular, I don’t see any reason to do them any favors.”
The Mayor said since the City acquired the water system from the Liberty Hill Water Supply Corp., officials discovered that many people had not paid their water bills and some are still delinquent. However, the City is willing to work with those who make an effort to communicate and attempt to pay.
“A lot of people haven’t paid their water bills. And a lot of people are not willing to work with the City, and that’s not the way it’s going to work anymore,” she said.
“We only have $4,000 in the bank,” said Marshall. “If we have to pay all of that, it will be difficult to start the spring season.”
Soccer registration for spring has already opened and teams will begin practicing in late February, he said.
Last fall, LHYSA had about 200 children enrolled, Marshall said.
The football and cheer organization averages about 200 children, Wilson said.