Parks agency drops the ball

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Coldstream Recreation Center in Northeast Baltimore was proud of its basketball program last year. The involvement of more than 40 boys and an emerging girls league excited the center director and volunteers.

But last fall there wasn't much basketball because new hoops for the indoor gym sat on the floor in boxes. For four months, city workers never got around to mounting them on the wall.

"We called. That's how it is with the city, when they get ready they get it done," said James Kenan, a volunteer who said he and the center director called the main office of the Department of Recreation and Parks several times. "They won't come out. They say they'll be out."

The boxed-up basketball hoops provide a snapshot of issues dogging the city's parks and recreation department. Although praising the department for new initiatives such as a boxing program that drew about 200 youths, Mayor Martin O'Malley and the chairman of the City Council's recreation subcommittee criticize the agency for being unresponsive and inefficient.

The parks are littered with trash, recreation centers need repairs and Director Marvin F. Billups Jr., hired by O'Malley in fall 2000, needs to infuse the department with leadership and vision, they say.

"When you see departments moving slowly on something as simple as keeping the parks clean, it gets frustrating," said O'Malley, who also indicated he and Billups are not communicating well.

"It's been frustrating for both of us. We've been talking past each other," the mayor said. "We can't keep going around in circles."

City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, an East Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the recreation and parks subcommittee, said Billups must get rid of staff who are stunting progress.

"There needs to be better leadership and the mayor needs to give Mr. Billups an ultimatum to reshuffle the staff or bring on other staff. I'm saying outright fire them," Young said.

Billups maintains he is doing the best he can with limited personnel and funds.

The department has a $24 million budget, 374 full-time workers and 358 part-time employees, and is charged with maintaining 5,700 acres of city parks, 45 recreation centers and 24 pools, as well as developing programs for everyone from toddlers to seniors.

"Everyone now wants to microwave a solution," Billups said. "Is it going as fast as we want it to go? No."

Billups inherited a park system reeling from a series of budget cuts and personnel changes under former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. In 1997, Schmoke moved all park maintenance over to the Department of Public Works. When O'Malley assumed office, he accepted park advocates' call for the responsibilities and staff to be shifted back. However, some maintenance work is still done by the Department of Public Works.

Billups said he has injected new life into the department. The agency has been aggressive in getting $6 million in new grants and restarting languishing capital projects. It plans to complete the renovation of 36 playgrounds by the spring and has forged solid relationships with the community and introduced new programs such as boxing and lacrosse, he said.

"I'm not sure of where this dark cloud of, 'We're not getting things done,' comes from," he said.

Jacqueline M. Carrera, executive director of the nonprofit Parks and People Foundation, supports Billups.

"I think people in general expected to see change in staff and infrastructure and they are not seeing changes as quickly ... and they are equating no change to no progress," Carrera said.

"He sees that he inherited a staff, and he is going to give them the tools and get them all on the same page."

Examples abound of slow repairs at recreation centers. As of Wednesday, there were 30 outstanding work orders to fix things, such as lights, dating as far back as October.

On Nov. 9, city officials conducting spot-checks on recreation centers snapped pictures of broken items in need of repair. City records say that officials forwarded the pictures to Zenobia McLendon, associate director of the Bureau of Recreation, and other staff to alert them, but that the department did nothing.

"Despite submission of work orders and the forwarding of these pictures to Z. McLendon and [Donna] Hooper (Leisure Services Manager), these issues have not been resolved," city officials wrote Dec. 6.

Many of the repairs were not done until this month. According to the parks department spokeswoman, a work order to replace a cover for kitchen lights at Harlem Park - a Health Department violation - was created Nov. 29, forwarded to DPW on Feb. 4 and finished the next day.

The first work order to mount the basketball hoops in the indoor gym at Coldstream Recreation Center was placed Oct. 23. But officials did not begin working on the hoops until Feb. 7 - after The Sun questioned them about it.

Billups and McLendon initially said they didn't know about problems with the hoops. "Those are the kind of routine things that we can handle," Billups said in an interview.

After a copy of the work order was brought to their attention, McLendon said she was "perplexed."

"I just don't understand this being outstanding for so long," McLendon said. "It's disturbing to me that a basketball team is not able to play and I am not aware of it."

But at a routine City Council hearing to review the parks department Wednesday - a week later - Young reminded McLendon that he had brought the issue of the hoops up months earlier during a separate hearing. McLendon was at that hearing, the parks department spokeswoman confirmed.

"They are not telling Mr. Billups the truth," Young said in an interview about Billups' staff.

At the recreation center, the devoted young basketball players have played all fall and winter on an outside court, bundled in coats. The number of boys in the 13-and-under league has fallen from 40 to 10 and no girls league was held this year.

"The other day it was real, real cold out here and I couldn't make [a] shot," said Dajuan Robinson, 12.

O'Malley said he suggested to Billups that he put together a crew to do nothing but repair basketball hoops.

The mayor is also concerned about trash. City officials say Clifton, Leakin and Gywnns Falls parks are particularly trashy. "It's a weak point and unfortunately it's one everyone sees," O'Malley said.

He said problems could be taken care of if Billups hired an operations director for the bureau of parks, a position open since October. Billups said he has interviewed several people.

Billups said that he met recently with the directors of DPW and the Office of Transportation to come up with a plan to deal with trash. "Right now we spend a great deal of time picking up paper," Billups said. "One of the initiatives is trying to change the culture of the people. We're trying to change how people use parks."

City Council members and park advocates worry that Billups' job could be on the line.

"He is going to be a casualty," Young said. "All he needs are people that are responsive."

But O'Malley says Billups is the man for the job. "We're committed to working it out and working it through," O'Malley said.

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