St. John Recreation dept growth struggling

Published 11:50 pm Friday, February 27, 2015

By Richard Meek

LAPLACE — An apparent change of heart by St. John the Baptist Parish Council member Jaclyn Hotard torpedoed Parish President Natalie Robottom’s attempt to add a person to the parish’s recreation department.

During a Council meeting on Tuesday, members spent nearly an hour debating Robottom’s proposal, which called for hiring a program coordinator to the recreation department at an annual salary of approximately $43,000. The motion seemingly passed 5-4, but immediately after Hotard changed her vote, thus killing the motion 4-5.

Council members debated at length whether such a position was needed, especially considering the department has struggled during the past few years attracting participation. In fact, last year very few kids registered for baseball.

But Robottom and others believed with the recent hiring of new recreation director Kerry Watkins — who has already more than doubled the amount of sports being offered in less than three months since taking over the position, which had been vacant for more than a year — a program coordinator would help in the solicitation of sponsorships and the recruiting of young people.

“This is an (avenue) to get kids and get our program growing in the way it needs to,” Councilman Lucien Gauff said. “We need a person in place to help get more sports and coordinate these sports.

“If we maintain the status quo, our program will never grow and get kids involved.”

However, others were equally as adamant in their opposition.

“Let’s lower the fees,” said Councilwoman Cheryl Millet, referring to the $45 registration fee for each sport, which some insist is cost prohibitive and the main culprit for low participation.

“I don’t want to spend money on someone else’s salary and benefits.”

Councilman Ranney Wilson said some residents can’t afford to pay the fees, because they are living on limited salaries.

“In 20-plus years, the recreation department has gone down,” Wilson said. “I don’t think hiring one person will change that.”

Hotard said the department is “worse off” than it was five years ago, adding it is “in shambles.”

Watkins briefly addressed the Council, saying he added girls basketball and softball, soccer and track and field and is in discussion with the parish School Board to develop a plan that will allow buses to be used to transport children to and from the playgrounds.

He has partnered with the New Orleans Saints, Pelicans and Coca-Cola regarding sponsorships, and that plans are in place to lower the fees, perhaps as low as to $20 per sport, although that has yet to be finalized.

Watkins said his staff consists of five employees and he “can’t be in all places at one time. I need someone to help me run some of these programs.”

Robottom said the proposed position was one that successful recreation departments have and added “there is enough work for all of them to do.”

Councilman Lennix Madere said the position could be revisited once participation increases and called for more cooperation among all stakeholders.

Robottom reminded Council members the position is in the operating budget they approved for this year.

Millet, Madere, Wilson, Hotard and Larry Snyder voted against the motion.