City councilman wants to audit parks agency after complaints over spending

A Baltimore city councilman is calling for greater accountability in the Recreation and Parks Department amid complaints about the agency's use of capital funds.

Councilman Carl Stokes plans a news conference at the Ambrose Kennedy playground in his East Baltimore district Friday morning to call for an audit of the department's spending.

"We don't know what the [department's] economic situation is," Stokes said. "We don't know if there is a budget crisis or not."

A 150-member volunteer transition team appointed by Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake reported a lack of transparency in the department's spending. The team — as well as the department's interim director and representatives from the mayor's office — were unable to obtain details of the Recreation and Parks capital budget, which pays for construction and renovation expenses.

"If we called for the budget, it should be understood that we're calling for all the money in the agency's budget," Stokes said.

A preliminary budget proposed by the mayor's office would cut the department's $31 million operating budget by nearly one-third. Under the budget plan, 29 rec centers would be closed and more than half of the city's pools would be shut for the swim season, which would be shortened to five weeks.

Rawlings-Blake is to unveil a comprehensive budget April 12 that would restore some service cuts through a package of new taxes and fees. But it appears likely that the Recreation and Parks Department, which suffered deep budget cuts last year, will be trimmed again.

Council members said they have been unable to obtain a list of the rec centers that would be closed. Interim director Dwayne B. Thomas said the list exists, but declined to make it public because it is preliminary.

Six neighborhood pools — Ambrose Kennedy, Coldstream, City Springs, Oliver, Towanda and William McAbee — and six wading pools — Canton, Curtis Bay, Joseph Lee, Tracy Atkins, Lillian Jones and John E. Howard — are on a preliminary list of pools that would remain closed this season, Stokes said.

A report prepared by the transition team described a "crisis of direction and sustainability" within the Recreation and Parks Department, compounded by a lack of leadership. In the past two decades, the agency has had 14 interim or permanent directors.

Ralph E. Moore Jr., director of the St. Frances Academy and Community Center and chairman of the subcommittee that focused on the department, decried a lack of communication and transparency. Moore has rallied hundreds of volunteers to repair the Ambrose Kennedy playground and pool, which are near St. Frances, but said he received slow and incomplete responses from the department when he tried to obtain permission to work on the facilities.

Some of the councilman's concerns "were already highlighted in the Mayor's Transition Team Report and will be addressed," Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake said in an e-mail. But O'Doherty noted that the rectifying the problems in the parks department would not "have a major impact" on the $121 million shortfall.

Rawlings-Blake hopes Stokes will "support her comprehensive plan to fix the devastating $121 million deficit, fully fund public schools, maintain every patrol officer, keep all community libraries open and fund after school programs without raising property taxes," O'Doherty wrote.

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