Officials, community scramble to save PAL

Mayor forms task force to plan how to staff nine youth centers

February 16, 2000|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Political and community support is growing to replace nine Police Athletic League (PAL)centers in Baltimore with other after-school and recreation programs, even as funding concerns threaten to derail the plans.

graflead,2 Mayor Martin O'Malley will announce a task force today charged with developing a transition plan for replacing city police officers at the centers with other staff.

Yesterday, Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said she will seek federal money to help keep some of the centers open after officers leave.

"I think we have a good shot at helping [O'Malley] with some of the resources," she said during a visit to DeWees PAL Center in the 5000 block of Ivanhoe Place in Northeast Baltimore.

One-third are closing

Police Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel announced last week he is closing one-third of the PAL centers because he needs more patrol officers fighting violent crime and open-air drug dealing.

The move enraged community leaders and caused City Council members to lob political daggers at the O'Malley administration.

The task force of police, city officials and community leaders will help O'Malley keep his recent pledge to find outside groups to keep the nine PAL programs operating as recreation centers.

If task force members do not find private organizations to run the closed centers, they will have to examine the Recreation and Parks Department budget to see if it can do so, officials said yesterday.

"The purpose is to find creative ways of staffing the PAL centers," said Tony White, the mayor's spokesman, "so we can bridge the gap that might be created when you take uniformed officers out."

Groups express interest

Several groups, including the YMCA, have expressed interest in taking over some of the PAL centers, which are slated to be closed in June. But city officials said funding issues might be a major stumbling block to any agreement.

The nationally recognized PAL program started in 1995 when then-Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier put uniformed officers in city recreation centers. It operates on a $1 million budget raised from private individuals and groups.

Baltimore owns the PAL center buildings, and the mayor's task force will have to sort through property tax, utility cost and liability issues and how to maintain previously established PAL standards.

Mikulski, visiting the DeWees center to promote a bill she is sponsoring to put more computers in after-school programs, refused to answer a question about whether it is a good idea to remove officers from one-third of the centers.

Council concern

But several City Council members expressed their concern during a two-hour luncheon Monday with O'Malley about losing the officers -- who keep drug users, criminals and drunks off PAL playgrounds.

Several council members urged the mayor to keep the centers open with police cadets or retired police officers, which he agreed to consider, some participants said.

"How do you make sure [youths] can get there safely and feel safe once they are here?" asked Hathaway Ferebee, executive director of the Safe and Sound Kids Campaign.

City Council President Sheila Dixon said yesterday that issue and others should have been resolved, and she faults O'Malley for not forming the task force before Daniel announced the closings.

"You need to have a plan, then announce the closings," she said, "so [council members'] phones are not ringing off the hook."

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