Faux Turf Fields Vs. Grass: Budget Plan Costs More and Shifts Expenses out of Cecil Co Schools Budget; Fiscal, Safety Questions

May 8, 2017
By

NEWS ANALYSIS

A proposal to spend $1 million for an artificial turf playing field in Perryville in the county executive’s Fiscal 2018 budget raises questions about costs, safety and policy issues on pushing expenses out of school accounts into county parks liabilities. In other words, is fake grass greener than the real thing?

The Perryville project is just the tip of the astroturf, the first in a long-range plan to build artificial turf fields at four other county high schools, under the Parks and Recreation budget instead of the Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) budget. Overall, the plan would spend over $5 million in the next few years and remove responsibility for the costs and maintenance of school playing fields from CCPS, thus freeing up room in the schools’ budget for other projects. The CCPS budget is often a target of county spending critics, while the parks budget is usually less of a political bullseye.

And the decision to calculate the useful life of the artificial turf fields as being from “10 to 12 years” skirts an issue that plagued CCPS budget deliberations before the County Council two years ago when school tennis court repairs were deemed as lasting slightly less than 10 years—and therefore ineligible for being counted in the capital budget funded by long-term bonds. (Some county Councilors fought, without success, to shift the tennis court repair costs into long-term bond accounts so they wouldn’t count on the property tax rate figures.) Vendors of artificial turf fields, including the “crumb rubber” material proposed for the Perryville field, vary on their calculations of the material’s useful life, with some—and other counties in Maryland estimates for their facilities—calculating the lifespan as eight to 10 years.

By putting the artificial turf costs in the long-term capital budget, the costs are not counted against the operating budget, which is the basis of the calculations for the local property tax rate. In other words, if the faux grass fields are deemed to last longer than 10 years, their costs do not “count” as an expense that could be cut to reduce the Fiscal 2018 property tax rate—even if most of the Perryville field’s costs will be spent in the Fiscal 2018 budget year. In political terms, putting the costs into the long-term expense column amounts to “free money” in the current budget debate.

Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy has proposed a new budget that would raise the property tax rate by five-cents. A $1 million cut in operating expenses could translate into a one-cent reduction in the property tax rate in the new budget year. But the Perryville artificial turf project was included in McCarthy’s capital budget, not the operating budget that is the basis of the property tax rate.

The proposal to build an artificial turf playing field at Perryville High School took local parents and school officials by surprise. CCPS did not ask for the faux grass field nor did they prioritize Perryville as the initial site for a broader multi-site artificial turf installation program, sources told Cecil Times. But schools supporters, not wanting to look a gift-horse in the mouth, are only too willing to accept the proposal, since it solves the problem of sub-par school playing fields without having to allocate scarce CCPS resources to the fields when there is an overall backlog of school maintenance needs, estimated at nearly $50 million.

Meanwhile, spring is usually a welcome annual arrival in Cecil County after cold and wet winters but county Parks and Recreation director Clyde Van Dyke sees the seasonal change more ominously: spring is when grass grows quickly and needs to be mowed. So the man who previously proposed abandoning a county boat ramp in Earleville because he objected to spending $5,000 a year on mowing grass around the facility is now advocating construction of artificial turf playing fields that won’t ever need mowing. (Former County Executive Tari Moore initially embraced dumping county operation of the boat ramp, which was given to the county for free by state and federal agencies, but backed down after public outcry.)

In testimony before the County Council last week (5/2/2017), Van Dyke acknowledged that county parks and recreation services are “deficient” in southern Cecil County and “we’re missing 32 percent of the residents of the county” by focusing services in the western and northern areas of the county. That is why he prioritized Bohemia Manor High in Chesapeake City as the second school fields to be included in his artificial turf program. Under questioning by Council members on why the decrepit fields at North East High were listed as last on the priority list for upgrades, Van Dyke claimed that the official county budget document had a “misprint” and that in fact North East would be the third school fields to go faux turf under his plan.

Van Dyke told Council members that natural grass fields cost about $4,500 a year to maintain and must be overhauled, at a cost of about $45,000, every three to five years.
For artificial turf fields, Van Dyke said, annual maintenance costs are just $700 and once the artificial turf field is created, it could be overhauled at a cost of $325,000 after 10 to 12 years of use. Even with the ‘iffy’ time frames in his calculations, natural grass still seems to be a more cost-effective option.

Van Dyke said that the artificial turn fields would be safer, cheaper and better than grass, allowing longer months of playing time and all-weather usage. His conclusions are not necessarily shared by other counties or organizations.

In Montgomery County, MD, the County Council recently approved a plan to construct artificial turf fields at three schools, at a total county cost of $4.9 million. The plan calls for a local youth soccer league to pay additional costs for installation expenses as part of a time-sharing arrangement that will give the youth soccer teams dedicated hours for access to the fields outside the schools’ own team needs for ten years, according to a report in the Washington Post. The fields would be built with natural cork materials and are projected to have a useful life of eight to ten years.

A study commissioned by the Montgomery County Council concluded that the county should choose the natural cork material, despite its higher costs, because of concerns about “potential toxicity from crumb rubber,” and found that the “natural” cork turf material provided “improved balance and stability and reduced lower extremity injuries” for athletes in comparison with crumb rubber surfaces, like that proposed in Cecil County. The study warned of “the potential risk associated with the growing concern of the health effects of crumb rubber.” (Crumb rubber is derived from recycled auto and truck tires.)

Van Dyke told Cecil Times that a cork-infill surface would have cost $200,000 more than the crumb rubber material he selected for the Perryville field.

Multiple safety studies over many years have drawn mixed results, with most finding no clear evidence of health risks or environmental dangers of crumb rubber artificial turf fields. But a newer medical-based evaluation focused on high school athletes raised concerns about how the fields are installed and the weight of the “infill” that affected injury risks.

A study of artificial turf released last year by the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine reviewed sports injuries at 52 high schools over four states over a five year period and concluded that higher “infill” weight levels were safer and had many fewer injuries, including a 16.8 percent reduction in “serious injuries.” The society found that fields with “infill weight” of 9 pounds per square foot were the safest and should be the preferred standard to reduce injury risks. But at a “minimum,” sports fields used by young athletes should have at least a 6 pounds per square foot infill weight, the study noted.

Van Dyke told Cecil Times that the proposed Perryville field would have an infill weight of 6 pounds per square foot. The artificial turf field at the new Calvert Regional Park has the same infill weight, he added.

The Calvert park playing surface was obtained through a Georgia company, Shaw Sports Turf, and Van Dyke said his cost and durability estimates for the Perryville field were based upon data from the Shaw firm. (A different vendor is under investigation by state officials in New Jersey after a newspaper investigation found widespread deficiencies, surface failures and high costs at crumb rubber playing fields at schools and parks.)

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One Response to Faux Turf Fields Vs. Grass: Budget Plan Costs More and Shifts Expenses out of Cecil Co Schools Budget; Fiscal, Safety Questions

  1. Ron Lobos on May 16, 2017 at 5:57 am

    Just over a year ago, the Baltimore Ravens removed the artificial turf from M & T Bank Stadium pointing out the a high rate of injuries that were being experienced on that type of playing surface. That included ACL injuries. This type of information should be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not to approve this product. The payroll for the Ravens players is over $125M/year, so as you can see, the decision to remove the artificial turf was safety motivated in order to keep their players on the playing field.

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