Parks problems still aren't fixed

Disrepair: Nearly all of 40 complaints about poorly maintained city parks were not addressed for more than a month.

September 06, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

When someone complained about broken basketball hoops in Baltimore's Gwynns Falls Park this summer, a city worker dispatched to fix the problem couldn't find the playground, yet reported to his bosses that the case had been "closed." Meanwhile, 131 replacement hoops sat unused in a warehouse.

Outside the Farring Bay Brook Recreation Center in South Baltimore, a visitor found hip-high weeds on the tot lot, graffiti scrawled on the jungle gym, splintered benches, drinking fountains that didn't work, a volleyball court without a net and a chess table with its top ripped off.

In Clifton Park in the northeastern section of the city, a crumbling city waterworks building - filled with mattresses, vodka bottles and heaps of garbage - remained open to children more than a month after someone called to urge the city to board up the structure.

And in Brooklyn's Garrett Park, bags of garbage collected during a city cleanup campaign in July remained on a tennis court a month later. The bags had split open, scattering trash over the courts, which have broken benches and no nets.

A monthlong examination of the conditions of four city parks found that 37 of 40 complaints about park maintenance reported to the city between July 26 and July 30 remained unaddressed after more than 30 days.

The slow response to complaints occurred despite a commitment by Mayor Martin O'Malley to rapidly improve the parks, and a pledge by acting parks director Kimberley M. Amprey to respond to citizen complaints within five days and fix them within 30 days.

"Clearly, this is unacceptable and embarrassing," Amprey said yesterday. "It's good for me to see, however, because it means we'll have to make more improvements to the department. We'll have to be more vigilant."

Initiative by mayor

The mayor said that he thinks Amprey has done a "great job" in her eight weeks as acting park chief. "But she's going to need a lot more than 60 days to get the parks department to where it should be," O'Malley said. "We want to make our parks treasures that everyone wants to live nearby."

In July, the mayor launched a new initiative to clean up the city's parks and dismissed former city parks director Marvin F. Billups Jr., whom O'Malley had criticized for moving too slowly to improve maintenance.

During the following two months, the city started paying more than $1 million to private landscaping companies, which kept the grass trimmed in most parks.

The parks department also reshuffled its top administrators this summer, expanded evening hours for 20 recreation centers and added more lights to Patterson Park.

But at least one initiative - a move to privatization - seemed to fail. On July 1, the city laid off 41 parks department janitors and replaced them with contractors, including Power Cleaning Inc.

But then parks officials moved this week to terminate Power Cleaning's $271,000 contract, saying that bathrooms weren't being cleaned, trash wasn't being removed and recreation centers were being vandalized because too many keys to centers were issued and later unaccounted for.

Problems with 311

The 40 complaints tracked by The Sun were called in to the parks department, the public works agency or to the O'Malley administration's new 311 computerized complaint system.

O'Malley said yesterday that the parks department has been slow to incorporate the 311 system into its daily routine.

"We have a great system, but if most of the workers don't use it as part of their daily work, the problems won't get fixed," said O'Malley. "The thing that concerns me most are the complaints that were [marked as completed] when the work wasn't actually done."

Part of the reason for the slow response to citizen complaints, parks officials said, is that the department has a backlog of thousands of complaints. More than 10,000 requests for tree trimming and removal citywide stretch back about four years, Amprey said.

The parks department also has 109 pending requests for maintenance and grass cutting, 74 of which are more than 30 days old. In addition, the city has a backlog of 47 complaints about graffiti in parks and on recreation center buildings.

Amprey said she has cut the backlog of residents' maintenance requests by half since taking office July 8, taking care of 260 during the past two months.

Financial problems have also slowed the department's responses. Many citizen complaints are about poorly maintained playgrounds, which are normally replaced with funds from the state Open Space program, Amprey said. But the state slashed the city's Open Space money from $4.8 million in fiscal 2002 to $2.4 million in fiscal 2003.

Another cause of the slow response to complaints, Amprey said, is that the city didn't have a parks division chief for more than a year.

"If there's no leadership, that would impact the service delivery," said Amprey.

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