Looking for a pot of gold

August 27, 2002

HERE'S A PIECE of Baltimore trivia: For eight decades, until the 1940s, money from the streetcar franchise financed the city recreation and parks budget.

This memory of a dedicated "trolley tax" is triggering parks activists' search for a new revenue source that would free the troubled agency from the vagaries of annual budget battles.

Baltimore is not alone. Parks departments in many other cities, too, are looking for hidden pots of gold to help them resolve budget problems. They take inspiration from St. Louis and four nearby counties, which two years ago dedicated a one-tenth of one cent sales tax to fund park and open space projects.

Other models range from Chicago, where the park board has its own taxing authority, to New York, which is trying to maximize public-private partnership as city funding is cut. When 135 Baltimore activists gathered in February to discuss new funding possibilities, suggestions included regional revenue sharing, utilities taxes, and dedicating a portion of entertainment tax revenue to recreation and parks. A Parks and People Foundation affiliate, Baltimore Alliance for Great Urban Parks, is refining these ideas.

Even though parks spending has declined substantially over the past 15 years, the department's allocation is still about $25 million. Finding that kind of money from alternative sources will not be easy.

The main thing here, though, is that a serious effort is under way to secure the stability of a once-great parks system that has gone to the dogs. That in itself is cause for hope. Because the revival of residential areas depends on well-functioning and tidy recreational amenities and parks.

No alternative funding plan is likely to fly, though, unless parks activists also develop political muscle so that they and their ideas will be taken seriously. Such mobilization must be an important part of the brainstorming that is going on now.

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