NO REFEREE'S WHISTLE could have caused more of an uproar on the soccer fields of Montgomery County than the announcement of a proposal to charge fees for any team play on parks-department fields. Youth soccer, like adult softball, is no minor pastime in Montgomery, and the fees as originally announced have sparked a mighty protest. Montgomery Soccer, Inc., a nonprofit volunteer organization that sends some 8,000 children and 550-odd volunteer coaches onto those fields every week in the fall and spring seasons, says the charges as first proposed would double its costs-- and threaten its ability to subsidize children who cannot afford to pay any registration fee.

Now, in today's urban-suburban financial world there is obviously no such thing as a free field. There are maintenance costs. But as MSI's parents know all too well, their parental functions at games are not at all confined to the sidelines; they pitch in--or are pitched in--for all sorts of maintenance work, from lining the fields and putting up nets to equipment repair, trash cleanup and even emergency lawn mowing. 4 MSI volunteers also suggest that their activities have served to lighten the county's recreational program responsibilities, since MSI has never asked the county for any subsidies. All children in the county are eligible and those who can afford it pay a registration fee of $18 or $21 (by age) for a child for each season. Organizers note that doubling these fees would create a need for still more subsidies by their group while discouraging others from participating at all.

At best, user fees should be a way of offsetting-- not necessarily covering entirely--demonstrable recreation costs and, as in the consideration of transit fares and other basic services offered to people of all incomes, any imposition of fees should be reasonable and take into account the importance of constructive programs for children. Before approving any such policy, Montgomery's county council should call time out and take a better look at the implications.