Activists rally to save park funds from cuts

They fear project money will be used to fix budget

January 13, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Two years ago, the playground outside St. Katherine's Episcopal Church in Druid Heights was no place for children.

Drug addicts and dealers roamed freely. Syringes, broken bottles and debris littered the basketball court and play area. Recreational equipment was broken, unsafe and outdated.

Now, the old playground has been dismantled and replaced. New barbecue grills have been added. A crumbling brick wall was replaced with a higher, chain-link fence. And neighbors' biggest complaint is that it takes at least 48 hours before city workers respond to requests to empty the playground's new, bolted-down trash can - a task residents believe should not have to be requested at all.

Neighborhood activists say the transformation would not have been possible without a grant from the state's Program Open Space fund - which Baltimore's environmentalists, recreation enthusiasts and park lovers are concerned state legislators will raid for the second year in a row as they address Maryland's projected $1.2 billion budget shortfall.

"The redevelopment of our playground brought new life back to our younger population and hope back to the rest of the community," said Richard A. Henderson of the Druid Heights Community Development Corp. "It's important to keep hope alive."

Henderson was among 60 city residents who gathered Saturday morning at City Hall to rally behind an effort to protect from budget cuts the more than $47 million earmarked for open space projects across Maryland.

Used to pay for daily management and maintenance of the city's parks, playgrounds, swimming pools and ball fields as well as construction and rehabilitation projects, Program Open Space money comes from a 0.5 percent transfer tax assessed every time real estate is sold in the state.

During the 2002 legislative session, lawmakers diverted about $65 million from the program to the state's general fund to make ends meet in a tight budget year. The result was a 50 percent budget cut for the city's 6,500-acre parklands, slashing its annual state allocation from $4.8 million in fiscal year 2002 to $2.4 million in fiscal 2003.

"When we bought our homes, we expected that that tax would go to our parks and they have stolen that money," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, an environmentalist and executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland. "They've used it for some important things, but they've stolen it no less."

She cautioned that a second consecutive year in which state leaders are permitted to use the open space money to fix the budget crisis "raises the issue that [Program Open Space] is being seen as a slush fund."

Speakers at the rally recounted story after story of the benefits of a thriving parks and recreation program, from raising the property values of homes surrounding well-maintained parks to serving as a deterrent to crime and keeping children busy and out of trouble.

"We all know that if properties are not maintained, somebody is gonna use it and those somebodys are the other folks," Derrick Wilson said. As president of the Northwood Baseball League, Wilson routinely finds tires, syringes and condoms littering the city's baseball diamonds, and outfield grass so high that it stops even the hardest-hit grounders.

Tim Almaguer of the Friends of Patterson Park told the crowd how last year's refurbishment of the landmark Patterson Park Pagoda with open space money is helping to revitalize the neighborhood, attracting new residents and luring visitors.

What had long been "a symbol of a neighborhood in decay," Almaguer said of the pagoda, is now "an icon of a renaissance and everything that is possible."

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