The cost of signing up a kid to play sports in Fairfax County is going up.

A new fee charging users of county-owned ballfields and gymnasiums goes into effect today. It has drawn criticism from Fairfax sports organizations that say they will have to pass on the cost to athletes and their families probably starting with the fall sports season.

The "application fee" of $5.50 a participant implemented by the county Department of Community and Recreation Services has united in opposition leaders of county sports groups. They tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Board of Supervisors to keep the fee out of the county budget, but supervisors approved it to help pay for property tax relief.

Sports league officials say the new fee is unfair to youth organizations that already pour millions of their own dollars every year into administration, field maintenance and construction, holding costs down by relying on volunteers.

"Absolutely unconscionable," was how Mark Meana, chairman of the Fairfax County Youth Football League board of commissioners, described the charge. "Here is another slap in the face for a measly five bucks," he said.

Since the supervisors approved the charge, the leagues have begun announcing fall registration fees. They are worried that an inflationary rise in registration fees, coupled with the field use charge, could hurt participation.

Fairfax Adult Softball will charge $425 a team in registration fees and $110 in application fees. The teams will pay about $88,000 more to the county this year, said Sharon Sealock, the league's administrator. To encourage people to play softball this fall, Sealock said, the league would try to absorb $40 of the cost for each team.

At the Dunn Loring Center in Merrifield, Richard Montano, president of Vienna Youth Soccer, pointed to a field that he said the league recently spent $100,000 overhauling. "A lot of people have indicated to me in the club if [the money from the new fee] was going into fields, they would have no problem with it. They think it would be a great deal, because we do believe in that."

But because the money is designated to go mainly into the county recreation department's general fund, Montano said there is little confidence among parents that the $25,000 to $30,000 in fees generated from Vienna Youth Soccer will benefit the league equitably. "We don't understand where the money is going at all," he said.

Patricia Franckewitz, director of the county's Department of Community and Recreation Services, said that some of the more than $1 million collected would help pay for the upkeep of county-maintained fields. She added, "This will also go to some scholarship money for [low-income] children to participate."

Meana said he questioned the wisdom of charging a fee to fund the low-income assistance program because the new fee would likely drive away more families than the scholarships would help. "People are not going to admit that they don't have the money" to play, he said.

Moreover, Meana said, if the county's young people do not participate in sports they might be recruited by gangs.

David Lacey, chairman of the county athletic advisory council, concurred with Meana about gangs.

"If you are trying to get kids involved in sports and not have them in gangs, then why would you want to charge them fees to play sports?"

Montano said, "The kids at risk are absolutely the ones that will bear the greatest impact of this. We are very concerned that that is where the loss will occur."

County recreation officials will keep track of participation in sports programs, Franckewitz said, and will advise the Board of Supervisors to reevaluate the fee if it is reducing participation.

Franckewitz said that like all county departments, community and recreation services had been directed by the supervisors to identify alternative sources of revenue to help fund programs. The supervisors had been under pressure from residents to cut the property tax rate and meet higher costs in education and public safety.

Supervisor Sharon Bulova (D-Braddock), chairman of the board's Budget Committee, said any new fee is unwelcome. But she said that without the application fee it would be impossible to fully fund the recreation department from the county's general fund.

"What does make this hard is that the groups do so much. The board is very aware of that and very much supportive of that," she said.

Bulova said the money generated by the new fee would not "cover the whole cost of our athletic programs and our field development and maintenance that we do do. It just helps to defray some of the cost. All we're asking is that some of the users help to defray some of these costs."