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Private operator would charge fee to use 2 city rec centers

FinanceBudgets and BudgetingMary Pat ClarkeStephanie Rawlings-BlakeBill HenryGeorge Nilson

Private operators would take over six city recreation centers — in some cases, charging annual fees to those who use them or offering programs for ex-offenders and the mentally ill as well as children — under a deal that had been slated to go before Baltimore's spending board Wednesday.

Some City Council members expressed concerns about the proposals, especially those in which the operator of two centers would charge annual fees.

Late Monday, following repeated inquiries from a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the Board of Estimates would defer a decision on the contracts. Spokesman Ryan O'Doherty declined to comment further.

Under the proposals listed on the board's agenda, four groups would take over six centers.

A nonprofit called Reclaiming Our Children and Community Project Inc. would run East Baltimore's Collington Square center and West Baltimore's Lillian Jones center, both of which are attached to schools. In addition to programs for children, the group proposes to offer job training for former criminal offenders and services for patients in need of psychiatric help, according to its bid.

Little Dimples II Corp. would assume management of two centers, Northeast Baltimore's Woodholme center and the Liberty center in West Baltimore. It would charge a $30 annual fee for evening programs for youths and adults, such as dance or basketball.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore would operate the Brooklyn O'Malley center in South Baltimore, offering health and fitness classes, leadership training and programs to steer kids away from drugs and gangs, according to a bid from the group.

The Omega Baltimore Foundation would be awarded the contract to run West Baltimore's Easterwood center, which is currently closed, according to the board's agenda.

To help cover expenses, the city would provide $100,000 in seed money to Little Dimples for Woodholme, $50,000 to Omega for Easterwood and $50,000 to Reclaiming our Children for Lillian Jones, according to the agenda.

Recreation director Bill Tyler said Monday he could not discuss proposals awaiting board action. "Until it's official, I'm not at liberty to talk about it," Tyler said. He referred questions to the purchasing department.

The purchasing department referred questions to O'Doherty. In an email Monday night, O'Doherty said a vote on the contracts had been deferred. He referred further questions to the Department of Recreation and Parks. Late Monday night, a recreation and parks spokesman said in an email that the contracts would be deferred a week "to allow additional time for outreach with individual stakeholders."

The proposals raised concerns among City Council members, who worried that the fees would discourage youth participation.

"I'm concerned about any barriers to rec centers, especially for neighborhood children," said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke. She expressed relief that the centers in or near her North Baltimore district were not among those slated for private management.

Councilman Bill Henry said that many residents consider rec centers an expense that should be paid for by tax proceeds, not by additional fees.

"It's something that we think of as a service that the city should just be providing based on what we pay for taxes," Henry said. "We still don't have a commitment from the administration that rec centers are being thought of and treated as the essential component of public safety that they are."

If approved by the spending board, the contracts for the six centers would mark the first of the transfers that are central to the mayor's plan for running the city's recreation centers in tough budget times.

Rawlings-Blake wants to use city funds to renovate or expand 30 centers and turn others over to businesses or nonprofits, though she has said some centers may close. The city currently runs about 55 centers.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, one of the five members of the Board of Estimates, has said he opposes the concept of turning over the centers to private operators. He declined through a spokesman to say Monday how he would vote on the contracts.

On Monday evening, Young's spokesman, Lester Davis, said the council president had not been advised that the matter would be deferred.

Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, also a spending board member, did not respond to a request for comment.

Dante Wilson, executive director of Reclaiming Our Children and Community Project Inc., said he had received a call from the city Monday advising him that the deal was set to go before the Board of Estimates on Wednesday. He said he had not been told that the matter would be deferred.

Wilson said that under his proposal, programs for ex-offenders and mentally ill people would occur during the day, when children would be in school and not using the center.

"By the time the young people get to the center, the ex-offender population would be gone," Wilson said.

The centers and the schools to which they are attached have separate entrances, he said, and the group would install cameras and other security systems.

"We want to be a community center and meet the needs of the community at large," said Wilson. Under his proposal, the center would obtain a large part of its operating budget through federal and state programs and would also serve seniors, people transitioning off welfare and at-risk youth during the day.

Traditional recreation center programs, such as sports and dance classes, would be offered in the evenings and on weekends, according to the group's proposal.

Little Dimples II would also seek funds from government programs for after-school care. It would charge parents $265 monthly for before- and after-school programs and $75 weekly for a summer camp.

"We believe [a] before/afterschool program that utilizes state/federal … funds in the form of purchase of care vouchers will generate enough revenue to cover the operating needs of the center," the group's bid says.

Little Dimples II's director, Thomas Hardnett Jr., did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

The city has struggled to find bidders to run the centers and recently released a second request for proposals seeking more groups that would like to run a center.

Some nonprofit groups said they thought the city's terms were onerous, since operators were required to procure $5 million in insurance and fully pay for salaries and utilities.

Rawlings-Blake has warned that the city does not have enough money to run all of the centers past the end of the year, and has threatened to close as many as 10.

Her adminstration cut about $300,000 from the recreation budget for the current fiscal year, one of many trims to the city's budget as a result of a $60 million shortfall.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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