Ehrlich to end program for parks

Democrats criticize move to cut state plan aimed at revitalizing older areas

January 25, 2003|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Taking aim at one of his predecessor's cherished initiatives, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is proposing to scrap a program that tried to revitalize aging communities by refurbishing parks and playgrounds.

Ehrlich decided not to include money in his capital budget for the Department of Natural Resources Community Parks and Playground program, noting budget constraints.

But several Democratic lawmakers are vowing they will fight to save the program, which former Gov. Parris N. Glendening started two years ago to further the state's Smart Growth policies.

"This is awful," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "The Democratic legislators adore the program, and we are going to resurrect it."

Since it began, the program has doled out about $11 million to local governments trying to turn neglected parks and playgrounds into vibrant community centers. Baltimore, for example, received almost $1 million last year to make improvements to eight parks.

The program was expected to get $13.5 million this year, but Ehrlich stripped that money from his budget. "Everyone is taking a hit, everyone is taking the pain for this horrible economic condition," said Greg Massoni, an Ehrlich spokesman.

Ehrlich's decision is setting up a showdown with legislators and environmental groups concerned about sprawl and the role parks play in aiding communities.

"I want an explanation as to whether we are going to backtrack on our older neighborhoods," said Del. Mary-Dulany James, a Harford County Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. said the administration decided to cut the program because the state's Program Open Space can be tapped to pay for upgrades to community parks.

"While this particular program is popular, much of this can be done with other initiatives," DiPaula said, noting the state's budget shortfall.

Overall, Ehrlich's capital budget includes $223 million for various environmental programs and projects -- about a quarter of the total budget.

But environmentalists note Ehrlich is also proposing to cut funds for Program Open Space, a fund used to protect land and maintain state and local parks. Ehrlich is proposing to spend $38 million on Program Open Space in the fiscal year that starts July 1, compared with $64 million allocated this year.

The cuts are causing some Democrats to question Ehrlich's commitment to Smart Growth and restoring older neighborhoods, a concept the governor said during the campaign he supported.

Legislators and Democratic leaders are especially troubled by the cuts to the parks and playground program because those projects are popular with constituents.

"We always thought [Ehrlich] would go after the environment, but we did not think he would go after families and children first," said David Paulson, spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party.

Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, said the grants are meant to enhance aging urban areas and older suburban communities so fewer people flee to newer suburbs.

"Time and time again, we see by bringing back a park, it makes a community more attractive," Schmidt-Perkins said. "It increases property rates and makes it more attractive so people want to live there."

The program was so popular that the DNR has been receiving requests totaling four times the available money. Local government officials said yesterday they hope the funding continues so they can continue to refurbish public parks.

"That money was important to us," said Robert J. Barrett, acting director of the Baltimore County Department of Parks and Recreation.

Baltimore County received almost $300,000 last year to fix up eight parks, including Catonsville Community Park. Across the state, 110 parks and playgrounds have been restored by the program.

"These are the facilities that really give an old community like Catonsville its character," said Jim Himel of the Catonsville Community Conservation Association.

Yesterday, Rawlings told his committee they have the power to vote to restore the money if they choose. But administration officials say lawmakers have got to control spending if they are serious about balancing the budget.

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