For four years, efforts to audit the books at the Department of Recreation and Parks have been stymied, allowing the agency (and its City Hall handlers) to steer funds away from the rec centers and pools desperately needed by city kids and toward glitzy consultant studies and new development plans.
Back in April 2009, I appeared before the Board of Estimates on Taxpayers’ Night and made the case in writing for an adjustment in funding between operations and maintenance appropriations (this is, money going to rec centers, park pools and other existing programs) and capital development appropriations.
I suggested that the city immediately begin to move funds away from capital development.
PART I: Without audits, the mayor’s fiscal reforms are mostly window dressing
Why? There is a normative standard in the rec and parks field when it comes to the ratio between O&M and capital funding: in a fully developed park system, the ratio typically would be $3.50 for maintenance to $1.00 for capital.
Baltimore’s rec and park system was being funded almost upside down – new development for ball fields, landscaping and the like was crowding out existing facilities and programs. I thought the agency was like a person suffering from consumption, who needed life-saving therapies, but instead was getting a brow lift and a new set of teeth.
As I continued to address the operations and maintenance issue, I found that the agency had spent $106 million, from five fund sources, between FY 2000 to FY 2008. All were allocated to the agency’s Capital Planning and Development Division.
Pumping Funds into Development
The data revealed that $43 million of these funds were from Program Open Space, meaning, they could have been dedicated to general maintenance and operations. (Baltimore is the only jurisdiction in the state that can use its Open Space funding for this purpose.)
It was evident that the city was willfully pumping money into development that could have been used to run the agency’s daily operations on a more even-keel basis.
Had all or a good portion of the $43 million been made available to hold the line on existing services and ease the department through some type of strategic transition – the last few years of morale-sapping controversy about closing swimming pools and shutting down rec centers could have been avoided.
What kind of big city government would want to own up to the fact that it was an unexpected surprise in late spring that it did not have the funds for a full summer swimming pool operation? That itself screams incompetence. But it was not incompetence that ruled – it was panicking the public into believing that the agency had no money.
Had there been an audit of Rec and Parks in 2010 or 2011, choices over the agency’s future could have been discussed with the public and solutions worked out cooperatively with the mayor and City Council to re-position the department as an asset for the city, not a liability.
Unfortunately, the willful mistreatment by the mayor of the agency over the past three years has placed in the minds of the public the notion that the department is a problem to be solved (through program cutbacks) rather than an opportunity to be seized.
Two Sets of Books
The fact is that Rec and Parks effectively keeps two sets of books, one for planning and capital development and the other for everything else. This became known to Mayor Rawlings-Blake Transition Committee and was reported to the mayor in March 2010 by the Transition Team.
Even though the Transition Team called for an audit of the agency’s capital planning division, the mayor’s office did not act and blocked an audit until the public ramifications of the city’s other operational messes – such as the 38,494 water accounts overcharged by the Department of Public Works – forced her hand and she agreed to an audit of Rec and Parks last June.
Throughout this period of inaction, there was a strong undercurrent from the mayor’s office that the city was in dire financial straits, even its Fire Department. The recession was killing us, the structural deficit was mounting, the piper had to be paid.
No one asked – least of all the obedient City Council – for the numbers demonstrating the city’s feeble condition.
The lack of such facts led me to meet with Budget Director Andrew Kleine. I literally showed him where money could be found to operate city pools throughout the summer. He listened. I tried to make him understand that the funds to open the pools were sequestered in the department’s second set of books.
But, by then, it was clear that the administration was wedded to its narrative that the city had to make hard choices, and truncating the swimming pool season provided evidence for this fiction.
Rec and Parks Director Greg Bayor, who left Baltimore last April after only two years in office, wanted the audit, and repeatedly asked for one. He knew it was essential to have a full body of financial facts to manage a department, especially through an era of change.
His successor, Ernest W. Burkeen, recently told The Sun that he wanted an audit, too, saying, “I think you should audit every year. You need to know if you’re doing things right.”
Perhaps Burkeen will get his wish this summer, when the Comptrollers’ Office says it can (maybe, if all goes well) complete the first Rec and Parks audit in many decades.
No Audits, No Accountability
Which is precisely the larger situation facing Baltimore – there is simply no fiscal DNA on the departmental level for policymakers and citizens to draw reliable conclusions about the city’s well-being.
All of the foot dragging by Mayor Rawlings-Blake and City Comptroller Joan Pratt suggests that neither wants to audit the city’s books because they would be auditing the very business they have approved as members of the Board of Estimates.
They might then be held accountable for their decisions and policy choices – something the insular world of City Hall seems to fear more than the decline of Baltimore’s public sector and services.
Chris Delaporte was Baltimore’s Recreation and Parks Director in the 1980s under Mayor William Donald Schaefer. He was interim chief of the Parks Bureau under Mayor Martin O’Malley and a member of the Recreation and Parks Advisory Board from 2010-2012. Co-founder of the Parks & People Foundation, he serves as the city’s Park Advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.