No time for emotion City rec centers: Evaluate each to decide whether it should exist and who should run it.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THEY BROUGHT out the children Monday night. Council members arriving at City Hall for their weekly meeting were confronted by two dozen youngsters who pleaded in their little children's voices: "Save our rec centers! Save our summer camps!" Indeed, Baltimore should do much more to save its children. And, in doing so, it should save some public recreation centers. But all of them? Probably not.

Neither Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke nor any member of the City Council should be swayed by this staged spectacle from making some inevitable, but difficult, decisions about the city's 58 rec centers. By annually trying to stretch the Recreation and Parks budget, giving a little something to each, the city continues to fund rec centers that may have outlived their usefulness while shortchanging centers providing valuable service to their communities.

Evaluation of the rec centers is overdue. For too long the department has been content to watch the success of centers blessed with dynamic leadership or located in affluent neighborhoods while providing little for centers lacking either attribute. The lie that every center is vital was exposed by a mayoral task force that found some rec centers grossly inflating the number of people who use their facilities.

The mayor appears reluctant to take necessary steps. His 1998 budget request for Recreation and Parks is $25 million. That's a $5 million cut, but he insists the reduction does not necessarily mean rec centers will close. The Police Athletic League, Salvation Army and other community groups are ready to take over more centers, Mr. Schmoke says. However, that may not be the best solution in every case.

Community groups with good rec center programs typically lack the money to pay for maintenance and equipment. They look to the city for help that won't be there.

Baltimore needs a comprehensive study of its rec centers so it can decide which should remain open -- either operated by the city or another entity -- and which should close. Mr. Schmoke says such an evaluation should occur in the privately funded Safe and Sound project to develop citywide youth programs. But the Safe and Sound report, part of an application for a larger grant, isn't expected until September. Rec center decisions must be made now.

Pub Date: 5/26/97

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