Stretching youth dollars

Our view: Privatizing Baltimore City's recreation centers makes sense if it saves money and keeps kids safe

February 26, 2011

Baltimore Recreation and Parks Department director Gregory Bayor's plan to allow community groups, businesses and public schools to run some of the city's 55 neighborhood rec centers sounds like a good idea — if it actually cuts costs and improves the quality of programs offered to children, families and seniors. If private and nonprofit groups can do a better job managing the centers than the city has, they should be given the chance. Given the history of ill-supported centers in the city and the success of such public-private ventures in Baltimore County, it certainly seems possible, though by no means assured.

Mr. Bayor wants to transfer control of up to 20 centers to outside groups who would be responsible for planning programs, hiring workers and handling day-to-day maintenance at the facilities. The city would pick up the tab for major building repairs and retain broad oversight over the groups' operations.

In the past, city rec centers have been chronically underfunded and one of the first places in the budget officials looked to cut when money was tight. As a result, many of the facilities have deteriorated badly over the years and now limp along in crumbling physical plants with practically no professional staff. They're desperately in need of new infusions of money, energy and enthusiasm that the cash-strapped city government is hard put to come up with. That's why many parents who rely on the centers for a safe place where their children can participate in sports and other group activities wonder whether the city is really committed to keep them open.

Even if the city finds enough outside partners willing and able to operate the centers — something that's not yet certain — one big question raised by Mr. Bayor's proposal is how much money it would actually save, given that his department envisions paying $50,000 or more to some groups to supplement funds they raise on their own. Mr. Bayor says the financial details are still being worked out, but it remains unclear how many local church groups and neighborhood associations, for example, have the resources to sustain such a long-term effort.

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says the plan could reduce the city's cost of running the centers by $1.3 million, even if some of the money is pumped back into the system to hire more staff and improve physical conditions at the facilities. Yet last year the entire Recreation and Parks Department budget was only $31 million, so the overall savings Mr. Bayor expects, while not inconsequential, are still relatively modest.

Perhaps more important is whether the plan would produce better programs and activities for neighborhood residents — and ensure the safety of the children who attend those programs. There have been too many cases in recent years in which kids were sexually abused or otherwise exploited by adult youth workers with minimal qualifications for the job. The city needs ironclad guarantees that the outside partners it brings in don't include sexual predators or gang recruiters. The mayor's office says fingerprinting and criminal background checks will be required for all employees working with youth, but the department will still need to keep a close eye on everything that goes on at the centers run by its partners.

Baltimore has been working for some time on a long-term strategy to correct the rec centers' problems. A task force formed last year recommended creating four new, large community centers, upgrading about a dozen more, and beefing up the staff and programs at 15 centers in neighborhoods with the city's highest rates of youth violence and poverty. Those seem like reasonable goals given the current budget crunch.

We're all for stretching a dollar so Baltimore's young people can enjoy healthy alternatives to the streets, and Mr. Bayor's plan for partially privatizing recreation centers seems to be a good start — so long as it really does save the city money while keeping its children safe.

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