Amid warnings that the city is operating nearly twice as many recreation centers as it can afford to properly staff, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke yesterday endorsed a consultant's report that recommends closing as many as eight city recreation centers and consolidating others.
At the same time, however, Mr. Schmoke said he would like to keep more recreation centers open on Saturdays to give children who are not in school someplace to go.
"I can tell you I'm a big proponent of having centers open on Saturdays, but we can't do that and maintain" all the rec centers the city now operates, the mayor said. Only about one in four neighborhood recreation centers is open on Saturday now, recreation officials say. Plans are already in place to begin
Saturday hours in about half of the centers in September.
Although the city has 77 neighborhood recreation centers and 12 special facilities, there is only enough money in the Department of Recreation and Parks' $34.5 million budget to properly staff and operate about 43 recreation centers, according to parks officials. Currently, many rec centers are either understaffed or open only part-time.
"We will definitely have to change the way we do business," said city Recreation and Parks Director Marlyn J. Perritt, who saw her department budget cut by about $500,000 this year. "We just cannot stretch that dollar too thin at the expense of the people we are serving."
The New York consultant, Joseph Caverly, identified only four of the centers that should be closed immediately: Dewees; North Harford-Woodhome; Irvin Luckman and Solo Gibbs. The other four were not named in the report.
However, Mr. Schmoke said he wouldn't begin closing rec centers until after hearing from the neighborhoods, a process that could continue until December, well beyond the September primary and November general elections.
Among the other recommendations in the report were:
* Consolidating activities at some recreation centers with those at nearby schools.
* Expanding after-school recreation programs to include activities for teen-agers. Now, after-school programs generally exclude children over age 12 until the evening hours.
* Establishing advisory councils of both adults and children at each facility to encourage community involvement.
* Developing four "regional centers" with more extensive recreational offerings.
"My personal opinion is that a regional center would offer a wide variety of services for a broader community, as opposed to individual neighborhoods," said Ms. Perritt,who said Chick Webb, Central Rosemont, Liberty Recreation and Cahill are among existing recreation centers that might qualify as regional centers.
City parks officials said Baltimore has the highest number of recreation centers per capita of any city in the nation and has the nation's third-largest urban parks system.
But some of the consultant's recommendations could run into opposition. For example, some parks employees have said they would object to having to work on Saturday with
out overtime. And community groups in the past have fought stubbornly to keep their recreation centers open.
The recreation department underwent tremendous growth during the 1960s and 1970s amid increased city, state and federal funding.
But since then, shifts in the city's population have made some of the centers obsolete. And with the decline in available federal and local funding, city officials say, the city can no longer afford to keep so many open.