Residents protest loss of services

Neighborhood centers, libraries are to close

March 11, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

The city's latest downsizing announcement, closing branches of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, has sparked a wave of discontent in neighborhoods that recently lost their fire stations and are waiting on edge to learn which schools will shut their doors.

The shrinkage, announced during the past 10 months, is part of Mayor Martin O'Malley's plan to make government "leaner and meaner" to keep pace with the city's plummeting population and budget restraints.

"I'm not a happy camper. You pay the same taxes, and the city services keep getting lighter and lighter," said Carol Hartke, president of Patterson Place Inc., a neighborhood association for the Patterson Park area. "I was really worried when our firehouse closed, and when I saw that libraries are closing, too, I just said `Oh, no.'"

Other recent city cuts include removing police from Police Athletic League centers and replacing nine Neighborhood Service Centers with six Human Service Centers, which are supposed to serve many of the same functions but serve larger areas.

The mayor says he must concentrate on cutting crime -- which he has done successfully by bringing the number of homicides per year to less than 300 for the first time in a decade -- to make the city more livable. He also is facing a projected $21.4 million deficit for fiscal year 2002, which begins in July.

And he believes that certain city services, such as firehouses and PAL centers, should have been consolidated years ago by past administrations.

"We're making government fit the population size," O'Malley said. "In order to do that, we have to be honest and realistic about the size of city government in relation to population."

During the 1990s, the city's population fell by more than 100,000 people -- from 736,000 to 632,000, a 14 percent decrease. During the past 10 years, the city has reduced its work force by 18 percent, according to figures from O'Malley's office.

But taking services from a neighborhood causes problems in a city in which people are used to walking, often because they don't own cars, said Matthew Crenson, a professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University.

"The population may be shrinking, but it's not becoming more geographically concentrated. People are spread all over place, " he said. "When libraries and neighborhood centers are consolidated, it's more difficult for people to get to them. Baltimore was designed as a pedestrian city. ... Many [people] don't have cars; that's problem Number 1."

The city listened to passionate complaints from residents when it announced it would close seven fire companies to save the city $4 million to $5 million a year. More criticism was voiced when officials removed police from nine PAL centers last year to put 20 more officers on the street.

Still more was heard when O'Malley announced in December that the nine Neighborhood Service Centers would be replaced by six human Service Centers.

The latest wave of resident discontent broke last week with the announcement that five libraries are to shut by the end of the year, and as many as another five by 2006. The library's Board of Directors will select in June which five branches to close first.

"With fire stations, libraries, neighborhood service centers, PAL centers, people develop a loyalty and become attached. That's all understandable," O'Malley said when asked about the streamlining. "There does need to be public discussion."

But, he said, the city is on track.

"Very few people would argue that we're not safer and cleaner than we were last year," O'Malley said. "We have to make tough decisions right now. We've got to stay alive. We don't have luxury of putting off hard decisions."

Tough decisions, such as which of the estimated nine to 12 city schools will close at the end of the year.

On Tuesday, the school board is expected to decide which of its 182 schools will go. The board is responding to a 30-year decline in enrollment, from nearly 200,000 to 101,500 today.

One of the schools, Arundel Elementary, is in southern Baltimore's Cherry Hill, an isolated community of about 11,000. It has a Neighborhood Service Center, which is turning into a Human Service Center, in the same building as its library branch.

Although the Cherry Hill branch is small, it has one of the highest attendances of the 26 branches.

In the same shopping center, the neighborhood's only major food market, Super Pride, closed in October. Residents are worried about the neighborhood and say it can't afford to lose the library.

"We're a small community," said Abraham Martin, a community organizer for Cherry Hill 2000, a neighborhood umbrella group. "We need all our resources."

He said the library is ranked fourth in usage, and that children and the elderly would be harmed if it closed, because the next closest branch is in Brooklyn, miles to the south.

In Hollins-Payson, an area in the city's southwest, Myrtle McCullers, 74, said she is upset with O'Malley because she's losing her neighborhood service center, and the next closest is a bus ride away.

"As far as I'm concerned, he hasn't been a good person with the budget. He should have been more careful," she said. "It's great he cut the murder rate. But that's not the only service to be done for people."

And Carol Hartke, who lost her neighborhood service center and fire station in East Baltimore's Patterson Park, said although she's concerned, she's trying to reserve judgment. "I worried when the service center closed, but I know it's being reconfigured into something else," she said. "In the end, maybe it'll be a better thing. The jury's out, and we're the guinea pigs."

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