City Children to Lose Rec Centers

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Baltimore City recreational centers are facing drastic budget cuts that may force a large number of centers to close. For fiscal year 2012 the city faced a $60 million deficit for the cost to maintain city services. In budget documents, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said “lower revenues and rising costs have created large budget shortfalls over the last three fiscal years.” While the adopted budget fully funds the mayor’s initiative for aggressive police hiring and the operation of 538 crime cameras, some of the city’s recreational centers may face the chopping block.

In July 2010 the mayor created a Recreation Center Task Force, charged with evaluating and rating the current programming and facilities at area centers, as well as a short term and long term plan of action for addressing the needs of Baltimore’s citizens.

“The city has had to learn to do more with less. We needed to change the way we’ve been doing things and instead of just cutting funding, we wanted to find a way to improve our services,” said Ian Brennan, a spokesperson for the mayor. “We can’t continue the status quo of dilapidated buildings with depleted staffing and inferior programming. That’s why we asked the task force to look at what every rec center is doing, find out what kind of standard we should hold ourselves up to and see where we can do that.”

Under the Task Force’s plan the Department of Parks and Recreation would fund and operate 30 centers, including three new community centers at Morrell Park, Clifton Park and Cherry Hill and the expansion of the Virginia Baker Center into a larger community center; a $14.8 million commitment over the next two years.

The remaining 25 centers would be run by charter, collaboration or partnership programs. According to the Task force’s report, the plan would save the city $300,000 to $400,000 per year in operating costs. Those funds would go back into repairs and improvements at existing recreational centers.

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According to the Mayor’s Office only seven partnerships have been identified to date through the Request for Proposal process. “Without partners that can step up and help transform the remaining centers, they will close. We want to have very good programming at the remaining recreational centers,” said Brennan.

Councilman Bill Henry (4th Dist.) has called for an end to the RFP process as dismal returns on submissions has left those remaining centers to an uncertain fate.

“My hope is to encourage them to move from an RFP in terms of staking partnerships and move to a more negotiated individualized process of trying to find groups or institutions that would like to help the city keep the other centers open,” he said.

“Rec centers are a priority. Nobody would be taking this seriously if the Fire Department was proposing to close half of the fire houses and move their staff to the other half that they are keeping open. You want to have a fire house near your house so that they can respond to emergencies. Recreation centers work the same way.”

Henry said that if the centers were forced to close due to a lack of viable partnerships, city children would bear the burden.

Bishop Douglass Miles, co-chair of the community organization Baltimore United in Leadership and Development told the AFRO that the organization will take the mayor to task to ensure that all of the city’s recreational enters remain open and operable.

“The real problem is that she broke a commitment that she made to the BUILD organization on our accountability night in August, where she committed to 55 quality recreation centers. Now she’s saying she only committed to 30,” said Miles.

“There’s never enough money when it comes to our children but there is always enough money when it comes to developers. If you look at the tax breaks that developers in Baltimore are getting, particularly those getting $9.4 million a year in tax breaks at Inner Harbor East while the city cries broke. Half of that money would enable recreation centers to be maintained at a quality level. That’s why we’re challenging her, to make sure that she upholds her commitment. A strong, quality recreation presence must be maintained in our communities.”

Brennan called Miles’ assessment disingenuous. “What she said was ‘yes, I have a plan to keep all 55 open. But the city is only going to do 4, 10 and 16.’ We need partners to step up because keeping all 55 open the way we did last year is not doing the kids any service,” he said.

Miles was also a member of the mayor’s Recreation Task Force in 2010.

“The city should expect to spend money on things that are important. All we’re doing by closing half of the recreation centers is putting half of our kids out of the equation,” said Henry.

The councilman said he hopes to convince the city to keep the centers open while other options are explored.

“The mayor doesn’t want to go back to the way we used to do things. That’s not an option anymore because we are not doing our kids any good by continuing to provide them with poor programming, minimal staffing and dilapidated buildings,” said Brennan.