LaGrange seeks help with bills

DAVE O’BRIEN / CHRONICLE

LaGRANGE — A gym at the former Keystone High School will continue to be open to Wildcat baseball and softball players for winter “open workouts,” Village Council decided by consensus Thursday.

The use of the gym became the subject of controversy after village officials said Keystone Schools was not paying its fair share of the cost of keeping the gym lit and heated. An agreement signed several years ago resulted in the schools selling the building to the village for $1 and saving on the cost of demolition.

Despite ballplayers still using the gym for open workouts, the utility bills were shouldered entirely by the village and its residents, Mayor Kim Strauss said. The village was presented with “a small check” last month to help defray the cost, he said.

“The 2,300 people who live in (the village) are who pays” the utility bills for the facility, Strauss said. What the village is trying to do, he said, is “to work out a deal that is fair, so (ballplayers) have the use of that gym exclusively.”

Parents of baseball and softball players, coaches and supporters of the sports programs who showed up at Thursday’s Council meeting said players had been locked out of the gym several times, and also were unfairly blamed for vandalism and theft there.

Keystone baseball head coach Bert Fitzgerald told Village Council he didn’t appreciate his players being blamed, especially on social media, for alleged vandalism of the building.

“It’s all unfounded,” he said. “We followed the agreement. … I was pretty offended.”

Village officials said they had kept the gym open for three years, allowing Keystone High School ballplayers to use it, without a penny shared for the cost of keeping the heat and lights on until last month, when “a small check” was received by the village, Council President Gary Kincannon said.

In the three years prior, “we never collected a penny” toward utility bills, Councilman Barry Price said.

Without discussing specifics of the agreement between the schools and the village or what was said in a meeting earlier Thursday between the two parties, Kincannon said both agreed to meet again Jan. 10 prior to the Village Council meeting that night “to go over all the statistics.”

Keystone Schools Superintendent Dan White, who also attended Thursday’s meeting, said the schools weren’t aware the bills were an issue until they were sent an invoice.

At no time during the conversation did the schools want the gym locked, he said.

“We all want a strong community and obviously part of that is working together,” White said. “We want to pay our fair share of the cost of utilities. That’s fair, and it’s the right thing to do.”

Council members said they also wanted to find a solution, and didn’t want to bring attorneys into the matter.

“That just makes it worse,” said Kincannon. White agreed, saying the only way the schools would consult legal counsel would be “if our backs are to the wall.”

The village still is converting the buildings for use as the LaGrange police station and village offices, which moved in Oct. 29. Meanwhile, the village leased the bus garage on the property back to the school district for $1.

Kincannon reminded the crowd of about 30 people — many dressed in Keystone Wildcats colors — of the makeup of Village Council.

“Five of the six of us up here are Keystone graduates. Four of six played baseball. Three of six are in the Keystone Hall of Fame,” he said. “Anyone who thinks we’re here to hurt the baseball team is sadly mistaken.”

He said Council wants to make sure “the agreement going forward covers the cost of utilities in the auxiliary gym, going forward.”

“Hopefully we find a middle ground. Hopefully that’ll be on Jan. 10,” Kincannon said.

Contact Dave O’Brien at (440) 329-7129 or do’brien@chroniclet.com. Follow him at @daveobrienCT on Twitter.

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