Supporters call it a lifeline for inner city youth in Hartford. Two hundred and fifty kids, all aged from five to 15 years-old on the field and off the street as members of the Harford Hurricanes, the city’s Pop Warner football team.
"If it wasn't for practice where would they be?" asked Troubleshooter Sabina Kuriakose.
"In the streets,” answered Head Coach and Hurricanes President Phil Bryant, “But instead I can round these kids up, keep their interest for 2 hours, make them tired so they could go home, eat and go to sleep."
But this season, the Hurricanes are going head-to-head with a different kind of opponent. Just two weeks before the season was set to start, the City slapped the all-volunteer organization with a $13,000 list of charges to use Dillon Stadium for their home games. That’s an increase of $10,000 from past years the team played at Dillon. Coach Bryant said he was livid, and at a loss for how to pay for it all.
"I don't think we should be charged for Dillon Stadium. We're talking about 90% of our youth, 250 kids having to pay to play football,” he said.
The team played in Cronin Park last season. Players said the field became a muddy mess when it rained. It was so bad that at times, members said visiting teams would threaten to forfeit the game.
“I got embarrassed that kids used to come to our field and play in the muddy field where they always slipping and sliding and getting muddy. Where we go to their field and it’s a flat field where all kids, you could run and not slide or anything,” said 12-year-old Hurricane Allan Lawson.
For the kids that play on the Hurricanes, Dillon is the dream. It’s a stadium they say is comparable to the fields of teams from other cities and towns.
“I love Dillon Stadium. It has big bleachers, it has a concession stand, it has all that you need at a football stadium,” said Lawson.
"What do you say to a child that's wishing he could just play football on a nice football field in the city? We're the Capital. I think we could step it up,” said Coach Bryant.
Still, love of the game isn’t enough to cover that $13,000 bill. Parents and team officials were told the team could play on other city fields for free. But they said no other fields were ready or available. Frustrated with the City’s response, they called the Troubleshooters.
"Councilman, are the Hartford Hurricanes going to have a season this year?" asked Sabina.
"Of course they will. That's not even a question,” answered City Councilman Kenneth Kennedy, Jr, a Democrat.
We went to the City of Hartford to find out why the bill shot up this year. First, Council members told us the charges were sent in error.
"It's a simple mistake. I don't think anyone meant to send that type of bill out for a little Hartford youth organization,” said Kennedy.
But the Mayor’s Office and the head of the Department of Public Works—the agency that sent the bill in the first place—said it was not a mistake.
"We just presented them with the bill for what is the normal charges for that,” said DPW Director Kevin Burnham.
Normal charges now that budget cuts have left the City strapped for cash and unable to help the Hurricanes foot the bill like in past seasons.
It took weeks of back and forth. The decision ultimately lay with City Council. And just this week, Councilors had a change of heart.
"We certainly are going to reduce fees for children, teams that have young people,” said Councilwoman Cynthia Jennings, a member of the Working Families political party.
City Council members promise to allow the Hurricanes to play all four home games at Dillon for $3,000—a sum they are able to afford, said Bryant. It was a tough win for the Hurricanes, and won before their season even starts.
"I really don't think we would have been able to do it without NBC on the story. Hopefully we won't have to call you for these types of issues anymore!" said Coach Bryant.
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