On the face of it, you can hardly blame City Council members for voting unanimously last week to block Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's proposal to transfer $100,000 from the Department of Recreation and Parks to the State's Attorney's Office. The optics of taking money away from programs that help city young people stay out of trouble and giving it instead to an agency that puts them in jail were beyond awful. On top of that, many council members and their constituents were rightly taken aback by the idea the city would raid parks and recreation's piggy bank whenever it needs extra cash for other projects.
As it turns out, however, things aren't quite that simple. For one thing, the mayor's proposal was never a direct, dollar-for-dollar transfer of rec and park funds to the prosecutor's office. Instead, the money was part of an omnibus spending bill that shifted funds around among a number of different city agencies, including some $1.4 million in cuts to police, transportation, finance and other departments besides rec and parks. In fact, most of the reallocated funds actually ended up going to expanded after-school programs, which also benefit city children.
Thus it's somewhat misleading to say the mayor wanted to cut parks and rec to pay for more prosecutors, which Ms. Rawlings-Blake says are needed to bolster the fight against crime. Since money is fungible, one could as easily claim that the money from rec and parks went to support more after-school programs such as tutoring and mentoring services, which doesn't sound half so bad.
That said, there's still a big problem with the way the city has handled the parks and recreation budget, quite aside from how officials intended to use any savings that would have resulted from the proposed cuts. In a nutshell, the mayor claimed shifting the funds around wouldn't result in any loss in services because the department was already sitting on $400,000 the council had authorized for summer program scholarships for needy youth — money that had accumulated in an account this fiscal year and last without being used because the department hadn't figured out a way to spend it.
And that's where the real problem lies: How on earth does the city justify allowing hundreds of thousands of dollars to lie idle instead of being used for their intended purpose, which was to enable needy kids to get out of the city and experience the great outdoors by attending a summer camp or other program? There are only so many opportunities a lot of youngsters have to develop an appreciation of nature through hiking, boating, sleepovers and other camp activities, and for the kids who would have been eligible for scholarships this year and last those opportunities have now been irretrievably lost.
Unconscionable is the only word that really describes how badly the city let down those children when it so easily could have helped them instead. And it's inexcusable that after all this time the rec and parks department has yet to come up with a plan to disburse summer scholarship funds. Officials there promise that they'll have their act together by next summer, but given their track record, we'll believe it when we see it.
Somebody has seriously fallen down on the job, and both the mayor's office and the Recreation and Parks Department are to blame. The mayor's office claims the process of drafting new spending rules got lost in the shuffle when the department recently replaced both its director and its head of recreational services. But that's a pretty lame excuse. Is the whole world supposed to stop every time a city bureaucrat and his deputies get caught up in a game of musical chairs?
That is a sign of a dysfunctional agency that actually hurts the very people for whom it is supposed to be making life better. The kids who missed out on going to camp last summer and the summer before that can never recapture those experiences, and their loss is a lot more acute than any embarrassment council members might feel over the politics of trimming the rec and parks budget. You can often put money back into a government account, though it's not easy. But you can never give someone back a few days or weeks in the country they never had as a child because the agency that was supposed to make that happen didn't do its job.