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Shrinking Budgets Forcing Cuts in Summer-Recreation Programs

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In some urban areas around the country this summer, the signs of fiscal distress may be clearest to those least able to understand them.

Children who last summer may have taken for granted free swimming lessons or the attention of a tennis or art instructor will in some cities have to confront an adult-world recessionary reality: the city can no longer afford to pay for those services.

Budget cuts to municipal summer-recreation programs for children are seemingly widespread, with officials of eight cities--including Atlanta, Boston, New York City, and Portland, Ore.--interviewed last week reporting that shrinking city budgets had forced at least some change in services or in the way they are paid for.

The outlook for program cutbacks is most dismal in New York--where all of the city's summer day camps and supervised playgrounds are slated for cancellation--and in Bridgeport, Conn., which had already virtually eliminated its recreation division even before the city declared bankruptcy this month. (See related story, page 5.)

Elsewhere, summer programs appear to be less threatened, because officials have made a commitment to spare youth services or because preserving programs for thousands of otherwise unoccupied youngsters is deemed a matter of public safety.

Nonetheless, civic belt-tightening nationwide has forced managers to increase or begin charging fees for swim classes and camps, to seek corporate sponsorships, or to just make do with old baseball gloves or rickety table-tennis equipment.

One exception is Washington, where this summer's recreation budget has grown by $1.4 million since last year to more than $4 million, thanks in part to Congressional approval of a larger federal contribution to the city's budget, said Linda Boyd, a spokesman for the city's department of recreation and parks.

A recent evaluation and reassessment of the needs of 12- to 17-year-olds in the city, as well as community recommendations, prompted the creation of more activities, including evening programs such as dances, she said. Nighttime programs, including swimming and basketball, will be "keeping the kids busy," Ms. Boyd said, and insulating them from the city's street violence.

Especially given concurrent budget cutbacks in the summer youth-employment program and in summer-school classes, "we needed to strengthen [programs] in that particular age category," Ms. Boyd said.

The city has even expanded its hours of operation for recreation programs, a virtually unheard-of move at a time when other cities are cutting hours as a relatively painless way to save money.

In contrast, Philadelphia's ongoing fiscal crisis means it will open its 80 outdoor swimming pools two weeks late--on July 1--when funding becomes available under the new fiscal year's budget.

The city's cash crunch has left some recreation sites and playground equipment in need of repair, and many of the 700 ball fields are not ready for summer play, said Charles O. Dougherty, administrative-services director for Philadelphia's recreation department.

In addition, over-building and lack of money for repairs have left many of the city's 800 centers in such disrepair that children "take their lives in their hands" by playing in them, according to the city's controller, who this month issued a report critical of the situation.

Some of the centers are so dangerous that at least one child has been killed playing at one, said City Controller Jonathan A. Saidel, and the city recently settled two suits that resulted from incidents at the centers.

In New York City, "recreation is always on the low end of the totem pole," according to William Castro, assistant commissioner for recreation in the city's department of parks and recreation.

Mr. Castro's department is expected to suffer the deepest budget cut of any city agency--a 40 percent decrease--in the coming fiscal year unless the city council orders a last-minute reprieve in the next week or so.

If the projected cuts remain, "it'll be devastating" for parks and recreation, Mr. Castro predicted. Under the current plan, the agency would lose 1,741 employees, leaving it with a smaller staff than it had during its 1975 fiscal crisis, he said.

The city is expected to save about $900,000 by cutting summer recreation programs for school-age children.

The city's 40 day camps, which usually offer sports, games, arts and crafts, and trips to theme parks, are to be eliminated, said Mr. Castro. About 4,000 children take advantage of the seven-week camps each summer.

Supervised playground recreation at 100 sites in the city's five boroughs has also been cut, as has a summer program for mentally handicapped individuals ages 7 to 23.

Private funds will keep the city's tennis and swimming programs alive, Mr. Castro said. Even so, for the first time, fees of $10 to $15 will be charged for the three weeks of swimming lessons.

Mr. Castro's agency is trying to work with other agencies to share resources or to get neighborhoods to "adopt" a playground. "We're just pulling out all the stops," he said.

The situation is even more dire in Bridgeport, where the recreation agency now consists of just one person--its superintendent, Kenneth Bruno.

The agency's $300,000 "bare-bones" budget is nonexistent beginning July 1, except for Mr. Bruno's salary, he said.

What Mr. Bruno calls the "genocide of children's programs" means the city's 10 playgrounds and its pools and five beaches will stand unsupervised and unmaintained, a scenario that leaves the Connecticut city open to lawsuits, he said.

"The ultimate cost at some point is going to be far greater," Mr. Bruno observed. "What value do we place on a child's life?"

Part of his job now is fund raising--either through approaching foundations or running special events like the recent "Save Our Kids" day, which raised between $2,500 and $3,000, he said, or about enough to open one city playground for the summer.

Private money, largely from corporate sponsors, also figures prominently in the recreation picture for both Boston and Atlanta, officials said.

The 20 percent cut to be borne by Boston's $13-million parks and recreation budget will be spread between administration and maintenance rather than taken directly out of activities, said Michael Quinlin, director of program development for the parks and recreation department.

Thanks to such corporate sponsors as Reebok International, PepsiCo, and the Red Sox baseball team, Boston will be actually be adding summer-recreation programs. The Boston Celtics basketball team, with financial help from the makers of Gatorade sports beverages, for example, will be sponsoring basketball clinics.

"They're making up for what we couldn't pay for," Mr. Quinlin said.

In Atlanta, officials are hoping to raise $400,000 of the roughly $2-million recreation budget from such corporate sponsors as the Coca-Cola Company, Lockheed Corporation,4and Southern Bell.

While the cutbacks to summer recreation were made carefully to preserve as much as possible a "major priority" program, the thousands of children who usually attend the city's 75 day camps will have just one field trip to a museum or state park instead of two, and may use older bats and balls, Mr. Hardnett said. "You have to adjust," he said, "and do what you need to do with what you have."

Meanwhile, officials in Pittsburgh, Long Beach, Calif., and Portland all said last week that they were juggling smaller budgets with the desire to keep recreation programs for children intact.

To varying degrees, Pittsburgh, Long Beach, and Portland are all planning either to close recreation facilities or eliminate some programs, officials said.

Pittsburgh's fees for programs from day camps to swimming lessons and tennis tournaments have gone up "drastically" this year, said Carl Mancuso, acting director for parks and recreation. If that trend continues, he said, at some point low-income children will no longer be able to afford such programs.

And for citizens who have long seen such municipal programs as the reason they pay taxes, Mr. Mancuso said, higher fees are "a hard thing to swallow.''

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