41st Anniversary Special: Wrecked park - Page 3

Chronic underfunding has made the Recreation and Park Department a prime privatization target

"We don't have enough dollars for $20-an-hour rec center staff who are directly responsible for the kids and are well known to the community. We believe kids deserve great coaches, consistency, longevity, and commitment," Reed said.

SEIU Local 1021 chapter president Larry McNesby is also the Rec and Park manager who oversees Palega Park, one of the Rec Connect sites. He told the Guardian that while his rec directors are "under pressure from the mayor to show him numbers of people that they are serving," Rec and Park's new online registration fails to reflect the "hundreds of drop-ins" that rec staff serve on a daily basis.

But he said the department has been set up to fail by chronic underfunding.

"I'd love Rec Connect and DCYF to be on a level playing field, because my directors could out-recreate theirs any day," McNesby said. "You can't just eliminate our jobs and replace them with someone who makes just above minimum wage."

Actually, Brodkin and Mestelle note that negotiations with SEIU over Rec Connect have resulted in a guarantee that no jobs will be replaced and an agreement by the city as to 250 different tasks that the Rec Connect CBOs can't perform. Still, they say the program brings innovation to a stagnant city agency.

"Before Rec Connect the rec centers always had a Ping-Pong table and some board games, but some of them were really poor, many were tired looking, none had computers or Internet. So we've had to think outside the box. Rec [and] Park is a big department, and it's not always efficient," Mestelle said.

Public records show that in 2006, the DCYF, whose primary function is to administer grants, sent $1 million in public money to Rec Connect from the Children's Trust Fund, a pool of cash the city gathers each year by levying 3¢ per dollar of property tax.

Both Rec Connect and city workers stress the importance of offering a range of good programs to young people. "Our work is at a more social level," McNesby says. "Every minute a kid spends in a rec center is a minute they're not breaking into a car or victimizing someone or being victimized."

The question is who should provide those programs. "It's society's value system that controls where the money goes," Rec and Park spokesperson Dennis said. "It's a really provocative discussion. There are some very compelling trade-offs argued in convincing fashion by intelligent people on both sides. These aren't easy decisions."

But the union people say that when it comes to Rec Connect, that discussion isn't happening in public forums in a forthright way. As Reed said, "Gavin Newsom never went to the voters and said, 'Here's what we want to do: cut the rec staff and bring in private nonprofits.'"

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