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Council blocks mayor's plan to use recreation and parks money to fund new prosecutors

The City Council has rejected the mayor's plan to take money from the Department of Recreation and Parks budget to pay for two new highly touted prosecutor positions.

Council members voted unanimously Monday to reject the mayor's proposal to use $100,000 earmarked for recreation centers to instead help fund the two prosecutors, who would work in the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore. The mayor's office argued that the transfer was appropriate because the money was sitting unused.

"There were some concerns that $100,000 was being taken away from recreation and parks," said City Councilwoman Helen Holton, who chairs the budget committee. "The committee members were not happy. ... This was not to say we don't support the need for state prosecutors. It was more about, 'Find some other pot of money other than recreation and parks with which to do that.'"

The two assistant state's attorneys positions together cost $160,000 annually.

Council members have long voiced concern about shrinking services for city youths, including the closure and privatization of some rec centers. Private groups took over most of the 20 recreation centers closed recently by the city, although a few — primarily in West Baltimore — have remained shuttered. The city plans to build 10 new rec centers over the next decade, and private groups are working to reopen others.

"If it would have been from any other agency, I would have been OK with it," said council member Brandon Scott. "But not from rec and parks."

In July, Rawlings-Blake joined Baltimore law enforcement leaders at a news conference to pledge "renewed energy" in cracking down on crime, highlighting an initiative to boost cooperation between state and federal prosecutors.

The new prosecutors were supposed to double the number who can try cases in federal court — where penalties are often stiffer for repeat offenders — and focus their efforts on violent crime in East and West Baltimore.

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said Monday the administration proposed the transfer because it wouldn't amount to an actual cut of any city service.

"The funding came from a scholarship fund that was already fully funded and had not been used by rec and parks in recent years," he said. "Therefore the money could be moved to other programs without in any way harming rec center programs. Given how long the funds sat unused, it was identified as one source of funding for other pressing areas in need of funding."

The scholarships were supposed to pay for youths to attend summer programs. According to Harris, the agency has a track record of allowing grant money to go unused. Scott and others said the department should do more to develop and publicize the program so youths will apply.

Last fiscal year, recreation and parks received $200,000 for scholarships but didn't spend it, then got another $200,000 in this year's budget. Since the unspent money was carried forward, the agency now has $400,000 for a $200,000 activity, Harris said.

"That's why we recommended transferring funds," he said.

The two prosecutor positions remain vacant while the administration determines how to fund them from the city's $2.3 billion operating budget. Harris said the administration plans to transfer money from the General Services Department. That plan, too, will have to go to the council for approval.

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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