All of Baltimore’s 43 recreation centers will begin opening their doors on Saturdays, under a $2.9 billion spending plan approved Tuesday by the City Council. The last time most rec centers were open on weekends was the late 1970s.
Council President Brandon Scott said the details of how late the centers will remain open and what programs will be available to kids still must be worked out. He said the $2.6 million investment reflects a budget priority for the council and Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s new administration.
“It’s unacceptable that they have not been open before this point,” Scott said. “This needed to happen a long time ago. For me, moving forward things have to be done differently.”
Scott said spending on young people also includes $13 million for the Children and Youth Fund, $560,000 to fix up at least a dozen basketball and tennis courts throughout the city and an additional $100,000 for the CollegeBound Foundation that helps low-income and first-generation Baltimore students earn degrees.
The school system will get about $376 million from the city, about $3 million more than the current budget. The schools’ overall budget — largely funded by the state — is $1.16 billion. The system serves about 78,000 students.
The new city budget is a 3.4% increase over the spending plan that ends June 30.
It includes a $33 million surplus due to higher than forecast revenues. That surplus will absorb the cost of the ransomware attack that hit the city on May 7. That cost is projected to reach more than $18 million, but the estimate includes indirect costs, such as lost productivity. Direct costs are closer to $10 million.
In the coming budget year, the city will spend $530 million on the police department, including an additional $20 million that will go primarily to information technology upgrades required under the federal consent decree. About $5 million will pay for raises and incentives guaranteed under a new police union contract, but officials say schedule changes for patrol officers should save enough in overtime costs to cover that amount.
Other budget highlights include $65,000 to study how to attract and retain homeowners and renters and an additional $100,000 for the Maryland Food Bank, which provides groceries and meals to thousands of senior citizens. About $15 million will go to the new affordable housing trust fund, approved by voters in 2016.
Another $634 million is planned for capital projects, including school construction and the ongoing sewer upgrades.
The spending plan keeps the city on track to continue rolling back the property tax rate homeowners pay. By 2021, the effective rate for owner-occupied homes is set to reach its lowest level in 50 years of just under 2 percent per $100 of assessed property value. The rate beginning July 1 will be $2.048. The rate for rental homes and commercial properties will remain unchanged at $2.248 per $100 of assessed property value.
Councilman Eric Costello, chairman of the budget and appropriations committee, said a budget deal came together in the final hours before Tuesday’s vote.
“It is a deal that reflects both Mayor Young and the council’s priorities,” he said. “The primary focus of this package is around opportunities for our young people.”
Still, not all council members were satisfied with the budget.
Councilmen Ryan Dorsey of Northeast Baltimore and Leon Pinkett of West Baltimore said they were frustrated the budget did not holistically rethink how and where tax dollars will be spent. Pinkett was the only council member to vote against the budget. Dorsey said he would vote in favor of the budget with the expectation things would change going forward.
“If not now, when?” Pinkett said. “This is the window of opportunity in the midst of all of this turmoil that our city has experienced and continues to face.”
Dorsey wants the city to focus spending on reducing vehicle use and addressing climate change.
Pinkett said he is dismayed by the “the continuing level of disinvestment and lack of resources in communities throughout West Baltimore.”
For instance, he said, the rec center in Sandtown-Winchester may be open on Saturdays, but kids won’t find a modern facility. The Sandtown rec center is one of eight that have been open on Saturdays since 2017 under a violence-reduction initiative.
The rest of the city’s 43 rec centers are expected to begin weekend operations around Labor Day. Before they can open on Saturdays, the city Department of Recreation and Parks must hire more staff and establish programs.
Late Tuesday afternoon, kids played in tag in the basketball court at the C.C. Jackson Recreation Center in Northwest Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood. Adults, meanwhile, filled up the fitness room and students made their way after school.
Brenda Williams, the center’s director, said once the clock strikes six, every room in the center from the computer lab to the dancing studio to the basketball court is full. C.C. Jackson is one of the eight centers that have been operating on Saturdays, and Williams said it has made a marked difference to the community. Between 150 and 350 kids come through the doors on a given Saturday and play video games, experiment in the computer lab or take part in activities like football and dancing.
“There’s a huge need for the … recs to be open Saturdays,” Williams said.
Sadiq Ali, who runs Maryland MENTOR, called the extended rec hours a “really, really good start, but by no means is it a silver bullet that will fulfill all the needs of the young people in the city.”
Ali said the city should add innovative interventions — perhaps mobile gaming centers — and find ways to fortify meaningful connections between young people and adults. His organization works to build relationships between young people and supportive, caring adults.
“Even if there’s a million rec centers, a huge number of kids won’t ever enter a rec center,” Ali said. “We have to go where the young people are.”
To draw more kids to the recs, the recreation and parks department is talking to young people about the types of programs they want, said Reginald Moore, the agency director. Among some of the things kids say they want to do at the rec centers is to learn how to mix music like a disc jockey. Kids are also into “silent disco parties” where each one has a pair of headphones and can switch between stations and dance together, he said.
“Let’s create recreation that is best for the community, not what we think is best for the community,” Moore said. “We have to make sure we deliver.”
In 2012, the decision by a former mayoral administration to close about 20 of the city’s 55 rec centers was met with much criticism. Before that, closures over time had been gradual. The city operated 76 centers in 1991.
The idea behind the closures was to operate fewer, but higher quality centers after years of disinvestment that left many centers in disrepair and unused by kids.
A number of centers have reopened since then, including the Rita R. Church Community Center at Clifton Park. Renovations on that center were compete by the summer of 2013, featuring Greek-style columns, exposed wooden beams, skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows.