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BOE expected to privatize four rec centers quickly and quietly

Before you know it, the first batch of recreation centers will be turned over to private operators.

Above: Easterwood is expected to go to the Omega Baltimore Foundation, along with $50,000 in seed money.


Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s plan to place the first batch of municipal recreation centers into private hands is scheduled to come to a head this morning.

But don’t expect the angry crowds and “stop the process” speechifying that has greeted her plan at several community forums.

Instead the Board of Estimates has placed the transfer of four rec centers on its “routine agenda.” This will make the public-to-private transfer quick and quiet and largely under the public radar.

The awards, including $150,000 in “seed money,” will be part of about 70 items to be approved collectively by the board. The procedure normally takes less than a minute because there is no discussion, simply a voice vote.

In addition to Rawlings-Blake, the members of the board are City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, City Comptroller Joan Pratt, City Solicitor George Nilson and Public Works Director Alfred Foxx.

First Round of Privatization Today:

– Brooklyn O’Malley to go to Boys and Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore.
– Easterwood to go to Omega Baltimore Foundation.
– Collington Square to go to Reclaiming Our Children and Community Project (ROCACP).
– Lillian Jones to go to ROCACP.

Second Round of RFPs (Request for Proposals) Due January 25 for:

Bocek, Cecil Kirk, Central Rosemont, Crispus Attucks, Greenmount, Hilton, Northwood, Oliver, Parkview, Rosemont, Solo Gibbs, Towanda and Woodhome.

Board members can abstain or vote “no.” But because the mayor controls three of the five votes (Nilson’s, Foxx’s and her own), a “no” vote from Young and Pratt is meaningless.

The Politics of Privatization

If today’s board approval is expected to be anticlimactic, there’s been plenty of background intrigue over the last two months.

Rec centers with strong – or vocal – community backing will continue under city operation. But rec centers with less clout are on the “endangered list” of facilities set for private operation – or if no private parties materialize, for closure.

An example of the former is the Roosevelt facility in Hampden, where more than a 100 parents and children staged a noisy protest in October attended by City Council member Mary Pat Clarke.

A company named Little Dimples II had bid on Roosevelt. But the review panel rejected the bid partly on the grounds that the community would be hostile to the bidder. Sources tell The Brew that Roosevelt is now “safe” and will continue to operate as a city-run facility.

So will Liberty and Fred B. Leidig, which were originally targeted for operation by either a private party or the city school system.

Council Pressure

City Council members have also been applying pressure on the mayor. No Council members has publicly rejected the mayor’s program, but many have tried to cut deals to keep as many facilities as possible in their districts under municipal operation.

Their lobbying efforts, orchestrated in part by Council President Jack Young, has led to a softening of the mayor’s stance. At first, her office wanted 30 rec centers privatized and suggested that facilities not securing private operators would be closed after Dec. 31.

Last month, Recreation Bureau Chief Bill Tyler began telling Council members that he will adjust his budget so that no center will close during the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012.

Still, many rec advocates insist that the privatization process should stop until there is greater consensus about how to resuscitate the city’s faltering program.

Last year, rec centers provided 294,244 “program experiences” for young people, according to Rec and Parks. The vast majority of kids participated for at least three weeks over the year. Without this outlet, advocates argue, more kids will get sucked up into gangs, drugs and violence.

For Rawlings-Blake, many rec centers are old, costly to operate and a potential liability for children. For example, about 15% of the centers have only one full-time staff member, raising safety and security concerns. (In most facilities, volunteers and part-time staff run most of the programs.)

A task force that she appointed called for spinning off the old and dilapidated buildings and modernizing and expanding the best facilities.

In a quirk of funding, city has the capital funds to build at least two new rec centers, but not the operating funds to maintain all 55 current centers.

 Rearranging the Deck

All the pushing and shoving resulted in several delays to the award of the first round of centers. Last week, the BOE had scheduled to transfer six centers to four operators, but the item was then removed from the agenda.

The Brew (as well as The Sun) pointed out that in their bid proposals the operators had strayed far from the mandate of providing recreation for young people. Little Dimples II, for example, planned to open childcare and other fee-based services at the rec facilities, while ROCACP proposed a mental health program for ex-offenders.

The Brew looked at the financial information provided by the operators and found that all four had minimal assets and that the owner of Little Dimples II had a history of court fights with creditors and suppliers.

Little Dimples had been slated to receive $100,000 in city seed money, but withdrew its bid following the critical press accounts.

Boys and Girls Clubs, on the other hand, was set to receive no seed money last week. Today, however, the BOE is expected to award the group $50,000 to take over Brooklyn O’Malley.

In the wake of the media accounts, Dante Wilson, president of ROCACP, has promised to scale down his proposed adult recovery programs. This won him critical backing from the Israel Baptist Church at a meeting arranged on Monday by Rec and Parks.

Even with board approval expected today, ROCACP has a few hurdles to surmount. The organization is “not in good standing with the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation,” according to the BOE agenda, and is not in compliance with the city’s minority business participation goals.

What’s more, The Brew reported that the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation slapped a $1,600 judgment against the organization last month.

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