published Monday, November 14th, 2011

East Ridge City Council and nonprofit in soccer fees dispute

  • photo
    East Ridge City Manager Tim Gobble.
    Staff File Photo by Patrick Smith

The East Ridge City Council is seeking reimbursement for thousands of dollars generated by the East Ridge Soccer Association after city officials say the group sublet city-owned facilities at Camp Jordan to another soccer league without city approval.

The nonprofit ERSA -- which oversees more than 50 recreation teams, traveling teams, an extensive indoor soccer program and a host of adult leagues -- has been letting the for-profit Premier Soccer Academy use city-owned and maintained soccer facilities, charging PSA $25 per player.

ERSA officials say $5 of that was paid to the city and the rest put toward field maintenance costs such as seed, sand, sod and replacement nets, goals and flags. Mac Helms, president of ERSA, said that's standard practice for all players affiliated with the association.

East Ridge City Manager Tim Gobble disputes that.

"There's no indication that any of that money has been passed along to the city," Gobble said. "At most we were getting $5 of that, but there's no evidence of that because they never designated which group was paying which fee."

Representatives from ERSA plan to meet with Gobble and City Attorney John Anderson today. The city plans to bill the organization for at least $4,000 in fees it says the group owes.

Helms said he considered the agreement with PSA, which has been in place three years, as subletting.

"We considered it a merger. PSA technically wanted to stay a separate entity, but we agreed to share fields and facilities," Helm said. "We didn't hide that from anyone."

A Chattanooga Times Free Press article about PSA's move to Camp Jordan in 2008 is posted on ERSA's website.

Gobble, who said the city "has no obligation to watch the news or look at somebody's website," said he didn't become aware of the issue until last week.

He said it raises larger questions about how Camp Jordan is being used; how much money is being generated by the teams, leagues and tournaments; and how much the city is getting back.

The city spends about $1.3 million a year for Camp Jordan's upkeep, he said.

"That's a significant commitment from taxpayers, and they deserve to be adequately compensated for that commitment," Gobble said. "We're going to be monitoring that more closely."

During an agenda session Thursday, East Ridge City Council members discussed entering into a separate agreement with Premier and seeking full reimbursement from ERSA.

"We need a greater level of checks and balances in place," Councilman Darwin Branam said.

Branam, a former fraud investigator with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, offered to perform an audit of the association's finances.

Councilman Larry Sewell suggested the city consider overseeing the soccer league full time, instead of ERSA running the program. The city runs basketball and football programs already. Softball and baseball leagues are run by separate organizations like ERSA.

Gobble met with representatives from PSA on Friday and set up a new arrangement to have the organization pay its fees directly to the city.

On Friday, East Ridge was unable to provide the exact costs that go into mowing, fertilizing and reseeding the fields or say how much of that is covered by the $5 fee ERSA typically charges its players.

But Gobble said that's a diversion from a bigger issue.

"The real issue is that they allowed some other group to come in, to use East Ridge city assets, and to charge them a fee, and then put the money into their organization without the city's knowledge."

Helms maintained that the organization was not pocketing the extra money.

"We feel like we're keeping it for East Ridge," Helms said. "We did not mean to do anything to cause a problem. ... This just seems like a misunderstanding."

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