EMANATIONS FROM the Department of Hmmmm:
You pop a few calls around just to learn something about how planning for athletic fields and gyms is done in Howard County, given that providers and users alike agree there's a shortage and given that two government agencies are responsible for such facilities.
Understand, the public school system maintains 259 athletic fields (gyms and indoor facilities, we'll address in the future, but watch that field number carefully) used by the county's youth and adult sports organizations. The Department of Recreation and Parks has 83 fields and zero gyms. Which, applying simple math, means the school system's day-to-day responsibilities for athletic facilities here outnumber rec's by minimally 3 to 1, not even counting indoor stuff that generates, give or take, five months a year of intensive use.
So, you hear from Joe Rutter, the county Planning Department's top guy, that his agency doesn't do anything with athletic fields and gyms, except for what's included in the Department of Recreation and Parks master plan - hmmmm.
But that way, you're assured, county government does factor in amateur sports groups for planning - hmmmm. Absolutely, you're told, school folks give and get input through that rec-parks master plan. And that's true, as far as it goes. The main conduit is the parks board; it's right there in the county charter.
Let's be honest, the parks board - its proper name is the Recreation and Parks Advisory Board - is a political lightning rod consisting of seven volunteers doing five-year terms. They meet six-to-eight times a year, most intensively when the budget process warms up, which it's doing now. They save political policy-makers from listening to the public grouse and then advise ... whom? The charter says the rec department, the County Council and the county executive. But Willa Brooks, the chairman, says, "It's the department," meaning rec and parks, whose director, the widely respected Gary Arthur, manages the board's agenda. Hmmmm.
Two of those seven volunteers are viewed mainly as golfers. Four live in the western part of the county, which at the political level steadfastly resists public recreation facilities. Only one of the seven, Steve Bounds, a school board member who just got voted out of office, represents all those schools and vying demands, uses and interests, amateur sports being a significant one, that are part of the package - hmmmm.
Which emphatically should not be taken as maligning the intent or expertise of anyone the board. But, one more characteristic: No member represents even a single amateur sports organization that uses any of those combined 342 fields, let alone those expanding groups' combined needs. Hmmmm.
"It's a very unrepresentative group in terms of the make-up of the county," says Brooks, whose doctorate and career are in recreation -hmmmm. Said another way, a "community" of more than 35,000 youth and adult amateur athletes has no one directly involved in the county's planning process. Period.
Then, during another call, you hear from Chuck Parvis, the school administration guy who contracts out fields and gyms and, thus, is known by every sports group in the county. Just chatting, he says his job seems likely to become a couple ticks more difficult.
Why? Centennial High's being bumped out in the back. Gone, field hockey space used this year by kids in a youth program. And a new alternative-learning center is proposed for behind the Department of Education headquarters on Route 108, on the northern edge of Columbia's Harper's Choice village. Gone, if that happens, two nice grass fields used by youth lacrosse players.
Add that to a baseball field at expanded Pointers Run Elementary in Clarksville. Gone.
"We have to fight for every square inch of fields that we have," Parvis says.
That's planning? Of course, it is - related, no doubt, to the fine planning we Howard countians have that generates five portable classrooms at a 4-year-old school (Ilchester Elementary) and that replaces two trailers with a needed brick addition, only to tack on three more trailers - 12 months after the addition opens (Phelps Luck Elementary).
On top of which, as reported on this page last week, political and administrative folks - both seem culpable - who set budget priorities for this county's schools, including all those playing fields used by many thousands in off-school hours, have cut money for maintenance to what possibly is a 10-year low.
Again, you taxpayers out there who devote countless hours to youth sports, or who like to continue playing sports as grownups - any of you feeling motivated to participate more actively in the budgeting process for the approaching fiscal year?