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Elderly rally to save recreation programs

Carrying signs and raising their voices in protest, about 120 elderly people rallied Friday afternoon at City Hall, hoping to save senior recreation programs proposed to be cut in the mayor's draft budget.

"We need them to know we are valuable," rally organizer Annette Butler said, as men and women stepped gingerly off three yellow buses that had pulled up on Fayette Street after the brief ride from Clarence Du Burns Arena.

Some walked with canes. Others used walkers. Together, they represented 94 programs and clubs facing elimination in the $2.2 billion spending plan Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake has proposed to close a $121 million budget deficit.

The programs administered by the senior citizens division of the Department of Recreation and Parks cost $349,000 in the current budget. The protesters argued that the programs give elderly people a way to get out of their apartments, enjoy social lives, go on trips, practice yoga, exercise and get information at health fairs.

"We just went to the Hippodrome last week for $25. We can't do that on a fixed income. … It keeps us going, and we need this," said Butler, who has worked for the city's Commission on Aging and Retirement Education and as director of the Waxter Center for seniors.

"We go to Martin's West for our New Year's dance," said Elaine Green of East Baltimore. "If you don't allow these things to happen, seniors will just be sitting in their apartments staring at the four walls."

City Councilwoman Agnes Welch, who is 85, stepped into the sunshine outside City Hall to take a microphone and lend her support to the cause. She said seniors need their government to be "responsive to the contributions we've made throughout our lives."

Welch said she had received thousands of letters and signatures on petitions and urged members of the group to contact other city officials.

"Send them to the rest of the council," she said. "You know you got me."

She said the recreation programs are included in Rawlings-Blake's "restoration budget," meaning a list of programs that would be restored if enough money is raised in new fees and taxes.

Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for the mayor, said "we're hoping to restore that funding," but it would depend on how the City Council handles the preliminary budget with its $50 million in new taxes and fees. They include new or increased levies on energy, soft drink bottles, parking and income taxes.

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