Parks funds tight all over At convention, officials talk budget strategy.

October 21, 1991|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

For parks and recreation directors from around the country, their annual convention was a time to commiserate over shriveling budgets, and also to share new strategies for raising new revenue and support.

They came to Baltimore Thursday for a convention that ended yesterday, amid exhortations to go home and fight local budget-cutters who tend to think of parks and recreation as one of the first places to save money.

The convention of the National Recreation and Park Association attracted about 4,300 people and 1,500 business vendors for meetings and seminars at the Convention Center and Festival Hall. The association, based in Alexandria, Va., is a private non-profit group representing about 21,000 parks and recreation workers around the world.

Judging from the stories of parks officials from different corners of the country, Baltimore may not have it too bad -- yet. The city Department of Recreation and Parks budget of $34.5 million stands to lose only $100,000 in the recent round of cuts in state aid. But the city's long-term funding pattern of the agency follows a national trend.

In 1975, the Department of Recreation and Parks received 25 percent of its funding from the state and federal governments and the city was responsible for the remaining 75 percent. But state and federal aid have dwindled, and the city now covers 90 percent of that budget.

A nationwide survey conducted by the association in the late 1980s projected that parks and recreation officials would need a combined total of $37.7 billion from 1990 to 1994 for land acquisition, capital investment in such facilities as new ball fields and rehabilitation of existing properties.

Even before the recession began to ravage state and local budgets, those park and recreation officials expected to meet little more than half of that spending need over the period of 1990-1994.

"Then we had the recession," said Barry Tindall, the association's director of public policy.

At the same time, parks and recreation agencies are under pressure to handle every social problem that can occur within their facilities. "Everything on the street comes in our door," Tindall said, including homeless people, drug users, criminals and others who can make parks and recreation facilities fearful places to visit. Some of the seminars at this year's convention dealt with policies on homelessness, drugs and acquired immune deficiency syndrome for parks and recreation departments.

Edward Koenemann, the Vermont state director of parks, said he has lost about one-fifth of his employees since the recession took hold there in 1989. The state used to fund about 15 percent of his budget, but by 1993, the state will fund exactly none of it, he said, which has meant substantial increases in fees for campgrounds and other facilities.

Dan Mulholland, a board member of the parks district of Tacoma, Wash., said that federal budget cuts since the early 1980s have saddled his agency with responsibility for a host of programs -- including after-school child care and senior citizens activities -- that used to be funded by the federal government.

As fees have risen to cover costs, many parks officials have begun to ask "whether we can program for all the people or just for the people who can afford it," said Carl Mancuso, assistant director of Parks and Recreation in Pittsburgh. "From a professional standpoint, that's humbling."

Such gloomy talk was lightened by a sharing of strategies, such as attracting private money to purchase of land or easements that parks officials covet for creating "greenways" that link open space and forests around a city and beyond. Park officials who manage mountains and forests in western states learned from Baltimore people and others about community garden projects blooming amid urban blight.

As they toured parks and historic sites in Baltimore and surroundingcounties, delegates marveled at places such as Harborplace, but kept returning to the subject of how to pay for it all.

"How can we keep what we have?" is a question that William Sullivan, a city recreation leader, said he heard from the delegates as he showed them the Baltimore Zoo and the National Aquarium. "Everything is back to the budget," Sullivan said.

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