Parks staff scores with `whatever it takes' spirit

Response: New leaders get city playgrounds and their management system repaired.

October 16, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

City parks employees have scoured graffiti from playground equipment, hacked down weeds, replaced missing basketball hoops and overhauled their department's system for responding to maintenance problems.

In response to an article in The Sun a month ago detailing the city's failure to respond to citizen complaints about the parks, city workers have fixed or addressed all 40 problems reported by the paper, according to a follow-up survey yesterday.

"We are working very, very hard to make the citizens of Baltimore proud of us," said acting parks Director Kimberley Amprey. "The department knows that the bar has been raised and it's no longer business as usual. Their motto now is, `Whatever it takes.'"

The department has made several systemic changes that allow it to respond to citizen complaints more quickly, Amprey said.

Previously, some parks managers lacked adequate computer training. Now, the supervisors are logging all citizen complaints into a computerized system that registers all calls to the city's "311" complaint hot line, Amprey said.

To discourage park supervisors from ignoring graffiti and other problems in their zones, the department now rotates managers from district to district, so fresh eyes can periodically reinspect each park, said Thomas M. Jeannetta, parks district manager.

The agency has also adopted The Sun's format of examining the parks' "top 40" most pressing problems. After attacking the 40 problems outlined by the paper last month, the department created its own permanent "rolling top 40" list of most important maintenance problems, Jeannetta said.

Disturbed by chronic problems in the city's parks, Mayor Martin O'Malley on July 2 removed parks Director Marvin F. Billups Jr. and promised a rapid cleanup.

His new interim director, Amprey, promised that the city would respond to citizen complaints about the parks within 30 days at the most.

As a test of whether the administration was serious about fixing up the parks, Sun reporters in late July called the city to complain about 40 problems in four parks: Bay Brook and Garrett parks in South Baltimore; Clifton Park in East Baltimore; and Gwynns Falls Park in West Baltimore.

The problems included missing swings, broken benches, graffiti on playground equipment and illegal dumping.

Despite the promises of a 30-day turnaround, a month later, in late August, the city had failed to respond to 37 of the 40 complaints.

A tour of the parks yesterday showed that all of these problems had been addressed. The parks were cleaner and safer, with the broken play equipment repaired or removed.

Teresa Jefferies, a kindergarten teacher at Bay Brook Elementary School, said she has noticed major improvements in the past month.

Jefferies said she had been angry that her 4-year-old pupils had been forced to play among weeds 3 feet tall, broken bottles and obscene graffiti on the Bay Brook playground, which was the focus of 10 complaints reported by The Sun.

"The playground was horrible and unsafe - but the kids still played on it, because they had nowhere else to play," said Jefferies.

In mid-September, the city tore down the playground equipment as part of a long-planned renovation, parks officials said. The city will replace the equipment this spring with a $160,000 set of jungle gyms, slides and swings, officials said.

"I was elated to hear that we're getting a new playground," said Jefferies. "Just because kids live in a poverty-stricken neighborhood doesn't mean they and their playground should be neglected."

Here are some of the other improvements the city made to the four parks:

In Bay Brook Park, the city fixed four broken benches, replaced three missing basketball hoops, repaired seating beside a baseball field, cut down tall weeds, removed graffiti from the recreation center and is installing a new bocce court.

In Garrett Park, the city replaced missing tennis nets, blasted spray paint from a concrete staircase, uprooted weeds, fixed broken drinking fountains, repaired benches, and swept glass and litter from a basketball court.

In Clifton Park, workers erected a fence around a collapsing waterworks building, repainted a picnic shelter, stripped graffiti covering a pool building and hauled away furniture that had been dumped beside a field.

In Gwynns Falls Park, laborers installed four rims and two backboards on a once-dilapidated basketball court. They hauled away an oak that had fallen across a playground and dragged rusty kitchen appliances out of the woods.

In a few cases, repairs made by the city didn't last. Someone stole six trash barrels from Garrett Park within days after the city placed them there. Graffiti started creeping back onto the park's playground equipment soon after the city removed it.

And in some instances, equipment removed by the city because it was broken or unsafe has not been replaced.

For example, the city removed a swing set and jungle gym from Gwynns Falls Park because they were built atop pavement. New equipment hasn't been installed in their place.

The city's park maintenance staff has been cut by more than 75 percent over the past two decades because of chronic budget shortfalls.

To compensate, the city is reaching out to businesses and nonprofit groups, including the Living Classrooms Foundation, as well as the state Department of Corrections, for help in cleaning up the parks. O'Malley is working with citizens groups to launch a citywide cleanup effort Nov. 2 called "Operation Green Thunder."

"We don't have the manpower to do everything we need to do," said Chris Delaporte, the new interim parks division chief. "But we are reaching out to form more partnerships with groups that can help us."

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