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Before slashing services, city officials should consider each neighborhood's special needs

Should poor neighborhoods get to keep public amenities like pools and playgrounds when more affluent neighborhoods are losing those facilities to government cost-cutting? Pinellas County's two biggest cities have approached that sensitive question in opposite ways.

Clearwater is closing playgrounds around the city to save money. City standards require a playground within a 1-mile radius of every home, but the city has long exceeded that standard. Five years ago it had 34 playgrounds. Today, it has 28. By 2017, the city may have only 20.

It costs about $65,000 to replace a single park's playground and $15,000 for yearly equipment maintenance. With the parks department budget slashed, Clearwater parks administrators decided not to replace equipment when it reached the end of its useful life, as long as there was another playground within a mile.

But even the staff felt that standard was too strict for North Greenwood, a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood with five playgrounds. Staff proposed saving two of the five, even though the two are still less than a mile apart. Park staff believed neighborhood demographics — lots of children and low income — warranted the exception.

But the City Council put a stop to that line of thinking. Demographics were not to be considered, a majority of the council indicated. The 1-mile standard will be enforced everywhere. Only council member John Doran argued otherwise, saying, "I think there are, in fact, differences between neighborhoods. More than one playground might be good for all kinds of reasons." But the rest of the council didn't agree, so the park staff will over time remove the playground equipment at four parks, leaving North Greenwood with just one city playground. There was no expressed interest in finding other alternatives, such as doing fundraising or recruiting corporate sponsors.

St. Petersburg, on the other hand, relied heavily on demographics and the unique needs of low-income neighborhoods in two recent decisions to save public facilities.

When Mayor Bill Foster said he planned to reduce his 2011 budget by closing four of the nine city swimming pools and converting four more to water parks with a high admission price, there was an immediate backlash from the City Council and residents. They said Foster had not considered the impact on low-income neighborhoods with few other recreational options close to home. Foster dropped his plan.

The other decision St. Petersburg made was to add a fitness room to the city recreation center in Childs Park, a low-income neighborhood. Other city recreation centers don't have fitness centers, but the city is making an exception for the Childs Park center because that neighborhood has special needs. Many families there lack the income and transportation options to use private fitness centers, so the city will spend $1.5 million to upgrade the Childs Park center with fitness equipment and a kitchen.

St. Petersburg is making other investments in Childs Park, too, using as a model the Harlem Children's Zone, said city parks and rec director Sherry McBee. The Harlem Children's Zone aims to boost the quality of life for children living on 100 New York City blocks by providing extra amenities and services, hoping that will improve the lives and opportunities of Harlem's future generations.

All people aren't alike. Neighborhoods are not made with a cookie cutter. Clearwater's decision about parks does not consider that children in a poor neighborhood may need more parks because they lack money and transportation to take advantage of other recreational opportunities beyond walking distance.

St. Petersburg's approach acknowledges that a city government should consider the unique needs of individual neighborhoods when handing out city amenities, even when dollars are tight.

Diane Steinle's e-mail address is dsteinle@sptimes.com.

Before slashing services, city officials should consider each neighborhood's special needs 09/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 18, 2010 11:24am]
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