The problem of privatization

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is getting a lesson in one of the major downsides of privatizing government services: When you ask outside groups to take over something the city has always done, their agendas won't always be the same as yours. That's what's happening with the mayor's plan to privatize some of Baltimore's recreation centers. One of the nonprofits that is bidding to take over two centers would provide programs not just for the kids that have traditionally been the rec centers' focus but also ex-criminal offenders and psychiatric patients. Another group seeking to take over two other centers would charge fees for the use of the facility, ranging from $30 a year for evening basketball and dance programs to $75 a week for summer camp. After inquiries from The Sun, the mayor wisely decided to delay a vote on the contracts, which were to be on the agenda for tomorrow's Board of Estimates meeting.

This was not what the mayor's task force on recreation centers described when it outlined a plan to reduce the number of centers the city runs but to increase services and provide for private operation of the others. The report and an accompanying implementation plan in no way suggest that private operators of the rec centers might be expected to charge fees.

And although the task force did suggest that "non-profits and community-based service providers whose missions may not be focused on recreational or youth services, but align with community needs, are also encouraged to submit proposals … for the use of certain recreation centers," the task force did recognize that the overriding purpose for the rec center program was to provide services for youths. Reclaiming Our Children and Community Project Inc., which is bidding to operate two centers, says it would offer services for ex-offenders and psychiatric patients during the day, when children are in school, and that the facilities themselves are laid out in such a way that those clients would not have to enter through a school building. Even so, there is good reason to wonder whether the vendor really has the resources to provide adequate services for all the groups it is targeting.

Some City Council members, including President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, a longtime advocate for rec centers, are objecting to the privatization plan, and for good reason. Baltimore needs to do everything it can to encourage youths in troubled neighborhoods to participate in the safe and constructive activities rec centers offer, and charging a fee won't help. Neither of the centers where bidder Little Dimples II is proposing to charge fees is in the city's most impoverished neighborhoods, but the precedent is nonetheless disturbing.

Although the city is now considering bids for just six centers, it ultimately hopes to turn over as many as 31 to private operators. Not as many groups entered the first round of bidding as the Rawlings-Blake administration had hoped, largely because of the level of financial commitment the city expected from the vendors. The administration hopes to modify its request for proposals in an effort to get more qualified bidders, but it would not be in the city's best interests if the prospective vendors made the finances work by increasing reliance on fees.

What needs to happen next is for the administration to delay consideration of these bids, and by more than one week. Privatizing rec centers in general is a tough pill for many in the city to swallow, and the details that have emerged about some of the bidders so far are only making the deal look worse. If the city is going to try again with new terms for prospective vendors — perhaps with more flexibility on the insurance requirements for the centers, a major sticking point in the first round of bidding — it might do well to throw out these proposals and start over from scratch. It makes little sense to have half a dozen rec centers operating under one set of requirements and others operating under different rules.

But the City Council also has a role to play. If council members believe that rec centers are a city function that should be supported by tax dollars and not user fees, they should find cuts elsewhere in the budget to pay for them. The Rawlings-Blake administration's plan is not primarily predicated on saving large amounts of money but rather on concentrating resources on a smaller number of centers. If the council has a different vision — and there is a solid argument to be made that Baltimore needs both quality and quantity in its recreation program — it has the power to make it a reality. All it will take is for council members to take responsibility for the hard choices that the city's limited resources require.

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