Recreation's future in city under debate Baltimore budget cuts shift burden to leagues police run for children

Some play specialists object

'They are cops. They do law enforcement,' counselor complains

November 25, 1996|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

As the number of Baltimore's recreation centers continues to plummet because of budget cuts, city leaders are grappling with just how many of the programs and activities can still be offered to the more than 180,000 youngsters in the city.

Increasingly, the answer seems to lie with the popular Police Athletic Leagues formed 18 months ago. But for many recreation counselors, the idea of police officers coming in to do their jobs doesn't sit well.

Many are resentful, worried and suspicious and say their hard work is not appreciated. That sentiment has bubbled up to the top of the ranks.

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier and Department of Recreation and Parks Director Marlyn J. Perritt have forged an alliance to make sure the two sides will start to work together. They met late last month, with their staffs, to hash out their differences.

"I know there was some tension there," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "I do think that Commissioner Frazier and Ms. Perritt are really committed to working these problems out."

One of the main points of contention, say some recreation counselors who attended the meeting, was the arrogance of police officers who acted as if they alone knew how to run a recreation center.

"We have master's degrees, and we have been doing this for years," said one counselor, who heads a popular and well-equipped recreation center in North Baltimore and asked to remain anonymous.

"They are cops. They do law enforcement. What makes them think they know more than me?" the counselor asked.

That was all a misunderstanding, said Maj. Frank Melcavage, who heads the PAL center programs.

"I think it was a matter of growing pains and misunderstandings on both sides about just what PAL was about," Melcavage said. "I think everybody was uncertain what direction both of us were going to take."

The direction Baltimore is heading with youth services is still in question. But there is no doubt that the city will rely more heavily on police than it has in decades.

When the recreation department closed 11 centers this summer, PALs came in to take up the slack at the same locations.

In four locations, the recreation department and PALs work together. Two more such unions are planned.

Frazier said he wants 29 PALs throughout the city. Today, 21 operate. Whether the PALs will move into more recreation centers is unclear.

The Police Department this month hired a consultant to raise donations for the already well-funded PAL centers. Meanwhile, Schmoke has said a larger budget is not planned for the recreation department next year. Last year, Schmoke and the City Council lopped $2.86 million from the department's $36 million budget.

Additionally, Schmoke has assembled a task force of city political and business leaders to review the recreation department. He wants the task force to figure out ways it can operate more efficiently and raise private grants and donations. Perritt will meet with the task force Dec. 5 to explain how her department works.

Despite the budget cuts the department has shouldered, Perritt said they by no means signal the end. "We are still alive and well," Perritt said.

These days, Perritt and Frazier are talking about partnerships within their departments. She said the two will work together for the best interests of the city's youth.

"I want to get away from this business of Frazier and Perritt" being at odds, she said. "We are still doing team-building. And team-building takes awhile."

Pub Date: 11/25/96

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