Faced with competition from better-equipped Police Athletic Leagues and a shrinking city budget, Baltimore's recreation centers are on track to shut down completely or offer children deteriorating facilities and broken-down equipment.
To fix the problem, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is ordering the department to pay more of its own way.
Schmoke has assembled a 12-member task force of city leaders, private citizens and business executives to figure out how the Department of Recreation and Parks can generate money. Extra cash could be raised through steep user fees, the sale of parkland or conversion of vacant land into public golf driving ranges.
"If we continue to do what we were doing -- downsizing, consolidation of services -- the department is going to dwindle to a level that is unacceptable," Schmoke said.
The task force will make its recommendations by the spring -- before the city completes a new budget. Some of the members include former City Solicitor Neal M. Janey, developer Carl William Struever, Councilman Edward L. Reisinger and state Sen. Larry Young.
What else the task force will look at is in the works.
But Schmoke said last week that he is open to all ideas, including management changes at the department, which is headed by Marlyn J. Perritt.
"The goal is not specifically going after any personnel changes," Schmoke said. But "if after comprehensive review we find that necessary, then I would do that."
The effectiveness of recreation and parks has come into question as the Police Department has established its Police Athletic Leagues with much success. The PALs are better equipped and have proved more popular with youths. They also are cash-rich because of state and federal grants.
Many of the city's recreation centers are old and in disrepair and the Police Athletic Leagues have taken over 11 former city centers. Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier wants 29 locations altogether in the city.
Whatever ideas come from the task force, it is clear that no easy solutions exist for city recreation centers.
The department's budget has been shrinking for years.
This year, the mayor and City Council shaved $2.86 million from its $36 million budget. Originally, the mayor wanted to cut the department's budget by $3.6 million, until residents and council members protested. Next year's budget is not expected to be brighter for the department.
"The public shouldn't expect more tax dollars to go into rec and parks," Schmoke said.
Community leaders and council members say that a "turf war" has been set up between the Police Department and the Recreation Department.
Many Baltimore residents say that more money should be spent on recreation so young people don't turn to crime because they have nothing to occupy their time.
"When kids are idle and hanging on street corners, they are ripe for the picking," said 5th District Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who sits on the council's recreation and parks subcommittee. "There is not a community that I work with that doesn't want more programs for kids."