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Funding of Recreation and Parks a hot issue at City Hall

Funding for the Department of Recreation and Parks was a hot issue at City Hall on Wednesday — with the City Council president suggesting that police and other agencies transfer money to youth programs, an activist criticizing a proposal to hire a driver for the department and a councilman re-emphasizing the need for an audit of its books.

Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young took the unusual step of suggesting at a public meeting that major city agencies, such as the Police Department, transfer 1 percent of their funds to the struggling department. Young said improved recreation centers would lessen the need for police officers and prisons.

"I know there's money we can look at to take a percentage to restore Rec and Parks," Young said at a council committee hearing over the nomination of a new finance director. "I want to be proactive and [keep] our kids … out of trouble so we can lay off police officers, so we can lay off judges, so we can lay off parole officers, so we can stop the building of jails and start building schools and [put] more money into the infrastructure of our youth with the rec centers."

Young asked Harry E. Black, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's nominee for finance director, if he would support the president's proposal to take 1 percent — or 0.5 percent — from various city agencies' budgets, including police, public works, transportation and general services, to fund recreation centers.

"The recreation and parks budget every year has been tremendously cut," Young said. "Would you consider across the board, 1 percent or a half percent, [transfers] of their budget to Recreation and Parks? I believe every agency in this city should help with having proactive programs for our youth."

While Black did not answer the question directly, he assured Young that he had "certain sensitivities" and would "provide a voice in terms of guiding" the budget process.

Later, mayoral spokesman Ian Brennan responded to Young's proposal. "The idea to make future cuts to agencies with cuts already on the table is unrealistic," said Brennan. Young voted to approve last year's budget, which includes the current parks plan.

Also Wednesday, the city's spending panel approved a $20,000 one-year contract to hire a driver to take parks administrators to and from events, but the expense drew criticism.

"I think it's totally inappropriate, considering we are about to close rec centers on the first of July," said community activist Kim Trueheart, who filed a formal objection to the proposal. "This is a long-standing practice. But this is a new day. What used to exist in really good budget times can no longer exist today."

According to Board of Estimates documents, the driver would work 1,200 hours and take administrators and staff to meetings and events. The driver would also take vehicles to the repair shop for maintenance. The contract is slated to begin March 23.

Brennan said the position also calls for taking children to and from events, and the job description would be clarified on spending documents.

"It's closer to a carpool driver than anything else," he said. "Part of the job is driving around kids."

After the committee meeting, Councilman Carl Stokes re-emphasized to reporters the need to audit the agency, saying he believes money can be found there to fund the rec centers.

Stokes proposed an audit in 2010, but the city auditor has said he hasn't had the time or staff to complete it because a brief examination revealed that the department's books were disorganized. In 2011, Stokes introduced a resolution — which failed because the council's term was ending — that asked for an outside audit and accused the parks department of mismanagement.

"The Comptroller's office found Recreation and Parks' accounting procedures and records to be in such disarray that it was not possible to determine how the Department was spending City money. ... This situation cannot be allowed to continue," the resolution stated.

The Rawlings-Blake administration is in the process of privatizing some rec centers because it says taxpayers can't afford to fund them at their current levels. Officials say the move would allow the cash-strapped city to improve centers because the agency would have fewer on which to focus.

"The children of Baltimore are better served by us running fewer rec centers well, rather than running more rec centers poorly," Brennan said. "The mayor is not satisfied with going back to the status quo, which was dilapidated buildings and bad programs."

Five groups submitted bids to manage Baltimore recreation centers in January, including two that would charge significant monthly fees for after-school programs that have traditionally been free.

The bids marked the beginning of the second phase of the city's attempts to find private parties to take over some centers. After awarding four centers to third-party groups in December, the city sought bidders for 11 other centers.

The city has 55 rec centers.

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Scharper contributed to this article.

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/lukebroadwater

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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