In face of cuts, city OKs $1.5 million for park building

Some City Council members say funds could have been used to keep recreation centers open

March 31, 2010|By Julie Scharper | julie.scharper@baltsun.com

Baltimore will use $1.5 million in state funds toward construction of a headquarters and other facilities for a parks advocacy group — money that could have shored up the city's recreation and parks department, decimated by cuts in a preliminary budget released by Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake last week.

The spending, approved by a city oversight panel on Wednesday, will help refurbish a dilapidated mansion near Druid Hill Park to serve as headquarters for the Parks and People Foundation, and construct an eco-friendly new building with classrooms and exhibit space. The nonprofit group plans to restore 9 acres of the park, planting trees and creating walking trails.

City officials say the $12 million project is worthwhile. But the funds that the city has pledged for it — $1 million for the current fiscal year and a quarter of a million for each of the two subsequent years — could have been used to shore up funding for the city's beleaguered parks department. The money is coming from Program Open Space, which spreads real-estate transfer taxes across Maryland to allow counties to purchase land that might be lost to development.

Urbanized Baltimore is treated differently, and can spend up to half its allotment on recreation and parks operating expenses.

A recent spending scenario released by Rawlings-Blake's administration lops nearly one-third from the parks department's $31 million operating budget. More than half of the city's 55 recreation centers would be shuttered, the majority of the public pools would be closed and 161 department jobs would be eliminated.

The mayor plans to unveil a second budget in two weeks that softens cuts with new taxes and fees, but she has said her priority is to restore funding to public safety agencies. It appears likely that some of the 29 recreation center slated to close will be permanently mothballed.

Some City Council members questioned why the city would devote Open Space funds to the construction of a new project when the city is planning to close existing facilities.

"This project is a wonderful one," said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who chairs the council's education committee. "But we're looking for money right now to keep children engaged in rec centers. In a time of operational crisis such as this, we probably should have a chance to take another look and possibly delay the capital projects to serve the children."

But Rawlings-Blake, who sits on the nonprofit parks group's board of directors, defended the allocation, calling the project "an example of a private-public partnership that will spur development."

The Parks and People Foundation "supports superior programming for our kids" and the plan would renovate a property that has long "lain dormant and is a blight on the community," she said.

Handling Open Space funds requires a "balancing act" between capital and operating expenses, she said.

Because of her affiliation with the group, Rawlings-Blake abstained from voting on the measure when it came before the Board of Estimates on Wednesday.

The project will include renovation of the historic superintendent's mansion and carriage house and the construction of a new building at platinum LEED standards— the highest, and priciest, level of environmentally conscious design. In the fall, the foundation shepherded in flock of goats onto the property to feed on overgrown brush.

The project is 10 years in the making and is a "major priority for the community and the city," said Jackie Carrera, executive director of Parks and People.

The foundation has long been an advocate for city recreation, launching the first urban Outward Bound program – which the mayor attended while a high school student— planning events and activities along the Gwynns Falls Trail and organizing youth sporting leagues and camps.

The city received about $3.5 million in Open Space funds for the current budget year, which ends June 30. All but $240,000 went to construction and renovation projects, at the parks department's request, said Gennady Schwartz, director of the capital arm of the parks department.

Shovel-ready projects should not be derailed because of the current fiscal crisis, he said.

"The capital budget is long-term," he said. "Otherwise, every six months you'll change your mind because certain things change."

A report prepared by a 150-member volunteer transition team appointed by the mayor was highly critical the parks department — particularly of a "lack of transparency" that has shielded the department's capital budget from scrutiny — and called for an audit of the department's finances and leadership.

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