Facing a $65 million shortfall in next year's budget, Mayor Sheila Dixon has warned she may have to cut back the hours or close some libraries and neighborhood recreational centers to balance the books. That's especially painful during an economic downturn, when demand for these services generally goes up as people seek less-expensive alternatives to ticketed cultural and sports events. If cuts become necessary, they should be part of an overall strategic plan to strengthen these institutions over the long term, not just respond to the current crisis.
The 22 branches of the city's Enoch Pratt Free Library serve more than 1.3 million visitors annually on a budget of about $41 million. Officials say they would rather delay reopening two local branches undergoing renovation and shorten hours across the board than close branches or lay off workers.
That makes sense given that the library doesn't have the personnel to staff those branches anyway because of a city hiring freeze. By cutting Sunday hours at the central library on Cathedral Street and putting all the neighborhood branches on the same schedule, officials could achieve significant savings while continuing to make the library's resources broadly available in the community. The library carries out periodic studies to assess local needs and usage of its facilities; the Parks and Recreation Department, which operates the city's 46 neighborhood rec centers, is just getting started on that task. Those are necessary steps to ensure the city isn't paying for underused buildings and programs. The rec centers serve about 15,000 youngsters and employ about 150 people at a cost of $6.3 million.
Here again the city needs to be smart about making cuts. It makes little sense to eliminate programs that engage kids in constructive after-school and evening activities at a time when Baltimore is grappling with an epidemic of youth violence. Many centers are open until 9 p.m. on weekdays and offer homework assistance, arts and crafts, computer training, dance class and sports.
What the city cannot afford to do is balance its books on the backs of distressed urban communities where the presence of a neighborhood rec center often can mean a very real difference between success and failure in so many children's lives.