The Spanish Fort City Council hosted a public hearing May 19 on a proposal to spend approximately $769,000 to install artificial turf at the Spanish Fort High School football stadium, an expenditure the council is expected to consider in June. The turf is estimated to last 10 to 15 years, and replacing it would cost an estimated $350,000.

Spanish Fort High School athletic director and head football coach Ben Blackmon admitted the turf would be a big expense up front, but suggested it would save the city money in the future. He said approximately $128,000 has been spent in the last year on expenses related to the football stadium grass. He said an additional $43,000 was spent to repair grass at the high school’s baseball stadium after football teams used it for practice when the football stadium was occupied.

Blackmon said the football stadium was used 287 times in the last year for practices and games for football, soccer and band activities. He said the only time the field isn’t used is the during the months of December and January, when the grass does not have time to grow back.

The city’s Spirit Park on U.S. Highway 31 has tennis courts and fields for baseball and softball, but nothing for youth soccer and football teams.

“This is not just a football issue, this is a Spanish Fort community issue,” Blackmon said. “This is an issue from the youth all the way to the high school kids and beyond.”

If the city decides to purchase the artificial turf, the grass currently on the high school’s football field could be installed at the middle school, where Spanish Fort Middle School football team mother Melisa Dotson said new grass is needed.

“The middle school field is in deplorable condition,” Dotson said, imploring the council to help. “That field is a safety hazard right now. The turf is needed. It is not a want or a luxury, it is a necessity. It is a shame for these kids to have to play on that field.”

Mary Brabner, the only council member to speak openly at the hearing, said the money should be spent elsewhere, if at all. Brabner suggested the city could purchase computers and finish landscaping and other issues at its long-awaited 36,000-square-foot town hall and community center, which broke ground in November 2012 but remains unopened.

Brabner, who has been on the city council since 2004, noted the city invested more than $6.3 million in projects at Spanish Fort schools for an average of approximately $560,000 annually over the last 12 years.

Brabner further broke down the expenses, saying $5.4 million of the $6.3 million has been spent at the high school for the construction of athletic fields, the football field house, sod on the football field, repairs to the baseball and softball fields and the track surface and refinishing the gym floor. The city also pays a $20,000 stipend to the high school’s athletic director and gives stipends to other high school coaches for summer camps each year.

“I’m appalled that I’m being told that our eight-year-old facilities, with our two-year-old field house, is not adequate,” Brabner said. “In light of the recent failures of the tax proposals, when does the City Council say $5,409,405 is enough to spend on athletics? We should make a sizable investment in the academic life of our young people.”

She said city finances are also still recovering from a $2 million judgment over bluff repairs, where property owners won a lawsuit last year because of the city’s drainage inadequacies.

“We had the cash in the bank and were able to pay for it, but I’m concerned we are not far enough removed from that project and have not had time to replenish our accounts before making an unbudgeted expense of this magnitude,” she said. “At some point we have to look outside the city pocketbook to continue to pay for athletics.”

Spanish Fort Middle School math teacher Heather Sorrell said the result of the March 31 tax referendum for school funding should weigh heavily on the minds of council members when they vote on the issue. Voters rejected an 8-mill property tax increase the school board said would have funded a 10-year, $350-million capital campaign that included building new elementary schools in the county. Measures to approve the current levels of funding also failed, leaving the county short of what it had before the referendum.

Sorrell said the city should focus on funding needs in the schools before athletic wants.

“I’m all about sports,” she said, noting that her son is an athlete. “But I feel like here in Spanish Fort we have lost our focus on academic excellence. We are focusing so much on facilities and things that should be long-term goals.

“We are overcrowded and at capacity,” she said. “We have nowhere to put new students. New buildings and new classrooms should be the priority and athletics should be a long term-goal.”

Resident Jared Dismukes said the issue is about the lack of recreational space in the city.

“I’d like to see a comprehensive plan for recreation, for the long term,” he said. “Youth sports is where it starts, and it finishes at the high school. We have too many teams and not enough fields.”

(This story was updated on June 12, 2015. The original story incorrectly attributed quotes against the artificial turf from Heather Sorrell to Melisa Dotson, who supported the installation of turf.)