Advocates criticize park funds plan

Diverting $2 million to pet projects at issue

March 31, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun reporter

Talk about your playground bullies.

Municipal officials and Smart Growth advocates are crying foul over a move by the General Assembly to divert to pet projects $2 million from a $5 million program aimed at fixing up community parks and playgrounds, mainly in towns and cities.

The legislature's budget committees earmarked the $2 million for eight large-scale recreation projects in the state's big suburban counties, some of them not even parks or playgrounds -such as a press box, artificial turf, stadium lights and seating for school ball fields.

"They're not taking candy, they're taking swing sets from babies," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland.

Not so, counters Del. Adrienne A. Jones, chairwoman of the House capital budget subcommittee. This was just a way of helping out some other deserving projects that had been in the running for $20 million worth of bond funding this year, she explained.

"They were not bond-bill type of projects," said Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat and House speaker pro tem. They seemed more like park and playground projects, she said, so they were written into that grant program "to free up the limited money we did have for bonds."

Municipal officials and advocates, though, complain that the move undermines a Smart Growth program that hands out grants averaging $100,000 to dozens of projects, many of them for making playgrounds accessible to handicapped children.

Half of the legislators' favored projects involve upgrading school athletic fields, which traditionally receive other state or local funds.

"Turf fields? Bleachers? Come on. They've got $400 million in the budget for school construction," said Candace L. Donoho, government relations director for the Maryland Municipal League.

The Department of Natural Resources, which administers the grant program, had planned to divvy the $5 million pot among 49 projects in Baltimore City and 19 counties, all but a few in urban areas. Some grants would help install ball fields or athletic courts, but many are for playground equipment, paths and railings to comply with federal law requiring public facilities to be accessible to the handicapped.

"This is a program that was designed to enhance the quality of life in older communities by fixing up neighborhood parks and playgrounds," said Dan Pontious, regional policy director for the Citizens Planning and Housing Association. "It's designed for real community facilities, that people can walk or bike to."

None of the eight projects favored by lawmakers - earmarked to get $250,000 apiece - had applied for funding under the parks and playground program. One, an equestrian park in Montgomery County, is not in a designated growth area, even though that's one of the requirements for getting a grant.

"It's frustrating when you look at the distribution," Donoho said. Three are in Baltimore County, two in Anne Arundel, and one each Montgomery, Howard and Prince George's. Counties receive funds for parks and ball fields from Program Open Space, she noted, which is a much larger grant program of nearly $260 million, also run by DNR.

"We have to go to the counties hat in hand and beg for it," she said of the open-space funds. "We look at this community parks and playground program as the offset for that."

Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., chairman of his chamber's capital budget subcommittee, acknowledged claiming one of those $250,000 grants for a field house and press box at Old Mill High School in his district in Millersville. The Anne Arundel County Democrat said the school's ball field is so far from the school that teams need someplace to dress.

"It was a safety issue," DeGrange said. He noted that the state grant will be matched by the school's booster club, which has been raising funds to help pay for the ball field upgrade.

Another change to the program made by the House - but stripped out by the Senate - requires that the state grants be matched with local funds.

Jones said the match requirement was meant to stretch the limited funds further, but municipal officials say that also threatens many towns' abilities to go forward with playground upgrades. Small towns don't have the money to spend on such things, officials say, which is why they applied for state help in the first place.

Municipalities have been forced to close some playgrounds, Donoho noted, because they can't comply with the Americans for Disabilities Act.

"We don't want that to happen," Jones said. Lawmakers have no intent to prevent playgrounds from being made accessible to disabled children, she said. DNR still has the flexibility to ensure that really important projects are funded, she maintained.

In any event, the two lawmakers said, there's still time to tinker with the program when House and Senate leaders sit down next week to work out differences in the budget bills that the two chambers passed yesterday.

"That's what we have conference committee for," Jones said.

"I'm sure if there's a will to use other funds, whether it's Open Space or things of that nature ... we'll certainly try to assist them any way we can," DeGrange said. He called the fund diversion "hopefully a one-time adjustment" in the playground program.

But this is not the first time legislators have dipped into the playground grant program, noted Donoho, the municipalities' lobbyist. Two years ago, when the General Assembly was shifting all kinds of funds around to balance the budget, it reduced the overall playground pot to $4 million and divvied it up among 13 projects.

The legislators' willingness to take money from grant programs for their pet projects, complains Pontious, "sends the message that you can play by the rules and apply for funds in this program and still get trampled in a last-minute political move."

"If this is the way it's going, why bother?" asked Donoho. "Why bother having a grant program?"

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