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Council approves money, ‘Half-Steppers’ ready to run in New Orleans

Three days before having to step on a plane to leave for a week-long national track event in New Orleans, La., Half-Steppers' coaches Eric Avery, left, and Johnny Holmes, right, ask the mayor and city council to donate $17,000 for the team's travel expenses. "I think councilman Beckles had the right idea," said Avery. "There's a certain thing called 'Take from Peter to pay Paul,' so I think we can do that." The team itself has collected $7,000 through fund raising events and donations. (Photo by Tyler Orsburn)

By: Robert Rogers, Richmond Confidential

After a lengthy debate Tuesday, the City Council voted to come up with $17,000 out of the current year’s budget to send a squad of Richmond kids to a national track meet in New Orleans next week.

Richmond is sending a track team to the competition, but it almost didn’t happen.

Coaches for the team, called the “Richmond Half-Steppers,” appealed to an initially skeptical council for the money, pleading that the young athletes would be devastated if they were unable to compete in the meet. “We just don’t have enough funds to make this trip,” said track coach Johnny Holmes.

Holmes and another coach, Eric Avery, said they had about $7,000 on hand after paying an $810 entrance fee, all monies that they raised throughout the year. While they were able to raise several thousands from private donors, the coaches said they were hurt by rising airfare prices as the departure date drew nearer.

If not for an immediate donation from the council, Avery and Holmes said 18 local kids who had worked all year would not be able to make the trip. “Each day I check the airlines and the prices are going up,” Avery said. “I need $17,000.”

The track club was started in 1967 when a group of girls at Kennedy High School asked and Holmes, then a student-supervisor, to organize a girls’ track team. Holmes agreed to coach the girls but said he would not tolerate any “half-stepping.”

Today’s team is composed of 10 boys and eight girls, ages 5 to 16, all of whom come from poor or working-class families in Richmond.

The event is the Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympic Games at Tad Gormley Stadium in New Orleans, scheduled to run from July 30 to Aug. 6. Billed as the nation’s largest multi-sport youth athletics event, nearly 20,000 athletes from across the U.S. will compete.

Councilmembers and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin questioned Avery’s request for $17,000 to send the team to the competition, noting that the Richmond contingent would include 10 adults – four coaches and six chaperones — in addition to the 18 youth athletes. “The city barely made its budget,” said Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, whom Avery had thanked earlier for having made a private donation to the team. “I don’t think we need to send that many adults, if it’s really about the kids.”

Avery responded that it was important to send 10 adults to ensure the children’s safety. “Coach Eric is about being safe,” Avery said.

The council’s interest in the Half-Steppers began with a report delivered by coaches at the July 19 meeting in which the young athletes were extolled for their determination and the team appealed to the public for donations to attend the Junior Olympics event. After that presentation, Councilman Nat Bates moved to propose an agenda item on a future meeting to explore funding options for the team.

But Finance Department officials wrote in staff report that the city’s budget had little wiggle room. “The financial impact related to this item should not exceed $13,500. This is an unbudgeted expense and will have a negative impact on the budget,” the report read.

Tuesday’s was laden with proposals to approve financing for a slew of other pieces of city business, including a $2 million project for road repair and tens of thousands in contracts for various consultants.

After several residents scolded the council for funding other initiatives, but not the track team, Councilman Tom Butt interjected. “This has gone on far too long,” Butt said before ticking off three separate agenda items and proposing to cut thousands from each – equaling the $17,000 the track team requested.

McLaughlin objected that Butt was proposing to cut money from contracts that had already been entered. City Manager Bill Lindsay stepped in. “Let’s delegate to staff to find a source,” Lindsay said.

Butt called that approach “irresponsible.”

“This is a zero sum game,” Butt said. “Some other program will be hurt” if the council approved $17,000 for the half-steppers without identifying corresponding cuts, Butt said.

McLaughlin motioned to vote on giving the Half-Steppers the full $17,000 they requested, with a directive that Lindsay’s staff find places in the budget to make corresponding cuts, and Councilman Jeff Ritterman urged the coaches to work with the city to hold fundraisers after the team returns to recoup some of the money.

Councilman Jim Rogers said the city had generally followed a precedent of granting no more than $10,000 for such event-related requests. “I will not be voting for this motion,” Rogers said, adding that he would have approved a request for $10,000.

Beckles also expressed concern, saying the council must adhere to its budget and cautioning that such a move might invite more requests. “Anybody else who’s coming [for a request for funds], I will have to vote no,” Beckles said.

The measure passed 5-1-1, with Butt voting against and Rogers abstaining.

After the vote, coach Holmes smiled broadly. “We can make it now, we can go and showcase our kids,” Holmes said. “I have a feeling of relief.”

Written by Globe Newspapers

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