Belleville, one of only a few NJ towns to not charge for rec programs, may soon change that … for all the right reasons

Play ball, kids!  But you’ll have to pay for the privilege.

That’s the current thinking of Belleville when it comes to sponsoring municipal recreation for the township’s younger set.

So acknowledged township manager Anthony Iacono at the Jan. 24 meeting of the governing body when he reported pay-to-play prospect was on the horizon.

If that happens — and every indication is that it will — Iacono said based on his research, Belleville, which, he said, has never charged for local youngsters’ participation in township-sponsored rec activities, has been the exception to the rule.

And that policy has only weakened the township’s rec program, he said.

“Our duties and responsibilities are to provide a good product,” Iacono said, but the township has more or less failed to achieve that objective.

“A good example of that,” he said, “is with the two young residents we honored tonight (Anthony Lopez Jr. and Elijah Franklin, who represented Belleville on the Newark Brick City Lions 12U Football Team, winners of the American Youth National Championship in Florida) who left their hometown to play for another team.”

After consulting local rec leaders, coaches and parents, “we came up with reasons for why we think (a rec participation fee) has extreme benefits,” the manager said.

Tom Agosta, township recreation director, agreed that in order to compete with other towns — particularly those with travel teams — on an equal footing, Belleville has no choice but to impose fees, particularly for an “expensive” sport like football, where, “just to recondition helmets every two years costs $6,000 to $7,000,” not to mention uniform jerseys whose cost has doubled in the last few years “and there’s often a 2-to-3-month delay getting them.”

With no fee, Agosta said, many kids who sign up to play “drop out” as coaches scramble to assemble teams and schedules, forcing them to contract the number of squads which are often less competitive. And Third Ward Councilman Vincent Cozzarelli estimated “15% to 20% of local kids who register for football “take their free shirt and never come back.”

“If they do pay (a fee), we tend to have more skin in the game,” Agosta said.

Cozzarelli, Councilwoman Naomy De Pena, Councilman-at-large and Deputy Mayor Tom Graziano and Second Ward Councilman Steven Rovell all echoed support for a fee schedule.

And, Agosta added, the township then has a better chance “trying to get a feeder system for our high school.”

With a fee system in place, however, Iacono stressed that, “there will never be a Belleville child turned away for a (financial) hardship” and Mayor Michael Melham echoed that premise, reasoning that local civic associations could step in to fill the gap.

Iacono said the township was looking at a “basic” participation fee of $25 per child, except for football and travel teams, both of which would require a higher assessment due to uniform, equipment and transportation costs. He didn’t say how much higher those fees would be, but predicted it would be less than what some neighboring communities, such as Nutley and Lyndhurst, charge.

Fourth Ward Councilman John Notari recommended the township consider fee adjustments for families with more than one child participating in a rec-sponsored sport or activity and Iacono said parents might receive some type of discount in such a case, but probably not where siblings are registered for different activities.

Community Pass, a Ridgewood-based firm that provides municipalities with recreation management software, could be retained by the township to help with registration and tracking of kids in rec-sponsored programs, Agosta said.

“They’re a good resource,” Melham said.

Iacono said the mayor and council could expect to see a formal draft proposal for a fee structure in the form of an ordinance within the next few weeks.

In other business, the governing body moved a step closer to cementing completion of a long-delayed real estate transaction expected to be the prelude to a mixed-use development on the old School 1 property off Rutgers Street as it voted to introduce an ordinance for the “execution and delivery of a corrective deed to O&R Urban Renewal Co. LLC, correcting the township’s previous conveyance of property located within the School 1 Redevelopment Area.”

A QuickChek facility that also dispenses gas and a small residential complex are targeted for the vacant 7-acre property.

A public hearing on the ordinance will take place at the Feb. 14 council meeting.

The governing body also appointed Jacqueline E. Guaman as deputy municipal clerk and awarded a $324,000 contract to Reivax Contracting Corp., of Newark, for Main Street flooding mitigation, funded via a grant from the N.J. Economic Development Authority.

Learn more about the writer ...

Ron Leir | For The Observer

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc.

He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter.

He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based WHATCo. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, New York