Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"Save our rec centers"

First Assistant City Manager Ryan Evans and District 10 City Councilman Jerry Allen at Mr. Allen's budget townhall meeting Tuesday night

A funny thing happened on the way to Dallas City Councilman Jerry Allen's District 10 budget townhall meeting Tuesday night. It got hijacked by the concerned citizens of Hamilton Park, a relatively small, predominantly black neighborhood nestled into a corner bounded roughly by LBJ (north), the DART red line (east), Forest Lane (south), and North Central Expressway (west). Although it is part of District 10, not that many people would associate it with Lake Highlands, which most consider the boundaries of Mr. Allen's district.

I would guess close to 50 percent of those attending Mr. Allen's townhall meeting, held at the Lake Highlands Freshman Center, were residents of Hamilton Park and their concern was identical to the concerns voiced in the three other townhall meetings, all in South Dallas, I have attended. Do something to preserve what hours can be preserved for the rec centers.

It's a fascinating development. The Lake Highlands Recreation Center is located less than 1,000 yards from where Mr. Allen's meeting was held, but not one speaker complained about hourly cutbacks there. But where the hours at Lake Highlands might have been trimmed, those at Hamilton Park's Willie B. Johnson Center were scalped. Under the city manager's currently proposed hours, Lake Highlands would be open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Willie B. Johnson, on the other hand, would only be open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. That's 45 hours of operations for Lake Highlands compared to 30 for Johnson. Not equitable at all.

One message is coming through, at least to me, in the first week and a half of these budget town hall meetings and that is money must be found, somewhere, somehow to keep these recreation centers open longer, especially those centers serving the minority communities. That should be the first and foremost priority of the Dallas City Council as it prepares the final budget.

And leave it to former council member Alan Walne to provide one way to find some of this necessary money. Although if I read this council correctly, these members are interested more in "what's in this for me" and not "what's in the best interest of my constituents," so Mr. Walne's absolutely brilliant idea will probably receive absolutely no traction. The last bullet on Page 21 of the slide presentation offered at every budget townhall meeting says: "International travel for business recruitment reduced." Mr. Walne suggests the word "reduced" should be replaced with the word "eliminated."

It can be argued that because the Mayor led a contingent of city council representatives on a trade mission to China that a couple of additional laundries and maybe a few restaurants opened here that wouldn't have otherwise and, yes, in the long term, these missions, it could be argued, might possibly lead to economic investments in our city we might not have achieved otherwise. But, let's get our priorities straight here. These are tough times we are dealing with and if we can keep the Willie B. Johnson, the Kleberg and other recreation centers open 15 more hours a week by eliminating trips to China and Belize than I say eliminate them. It's about giving our young people places to go and things to do that will keep them off the streets. It's about providing services to our senior citizens that give them a sense of worth and, by all that's holy, providing for our youth and our senior citizens is far more important than putting another feather in the cap of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce.

I must also praise Mr. Walne for his brilliant insights into PILOT as a veiled tax increase and the city council's failure to trigger the mechanisms to pay for the 2006 bond program like the voters instructed it to do. He also lamented the fact that more members of the council refused to follow Mr. Allen's suggestions for cutbacks to their own budgets.

But it was the Willie B. Johnson Rec Center that dominated the conversation Tuesday night. Mr. Allen's appointee to the library board took the cutbacks to the library hours gracefully but did mention that she wished more money could be found to purchase materials for the library during the upcoming fiscal year and I would argue that, after the rec centers, that really should be Priority No. 2. At the same time, I'm hoping such groups as Friends of the Libraries will use this budget as an excuse and a reason to redouble their efforts in securing funds from the private sector to purchase these materials.

Which brings me around to Cultural Affairs. Some woman had the effrontery at Mr. Allen's meeting to argue that funds should be made available to keep the Office of Cultural Affairs separate from the library. That should be at the bottom of the priority list. Here's what the city manager should do about the Office of Cultural Affairs: Continue her efforts to merge it with the Library system, but simply rename the merged department The Office of Library Services and Cultural Affairs. There you have it. What those misinformed souls I like to call the Art Farts don't understand is what's being eliminated is not the functions of the Office of Cultural Affairs, but much of the support needed to have two separate offices. In times like this, we should not be wasting money on this kind of duplication of efforts. And all those Art Farts out there should not begging for government handouts, but should be going out to those rich art patrons friends of theirs seeking donations. Look, it wasn't the city who built the new opera house and the new performance center. They were built with private donations and those kind of donations -- not tax dollars needed to keep our rec centers open and get more materials for the library and, dare I say it, pave additional streets -- should be what fuels the development of the arts in this city.

But the biggest idiot (Well maybe not the "biggest." It could be argued that the guy who didn't want to be "insulted" by having his sanitation rate reduced wore the Biggest Idiot of the Night crown.) of all waited until the end of the meeting, but she was one of those jerks that doesn't really want to ask a question. She wanted the opportunity to grandstand her own particular political agenda. Her stupid question was "When is the city going to begin working on the Trinity River Corridor Project" but then had the gall to say she "didn't have time" to wait around the for the answer which is, of course, not only has it already started but many major projects such as the Trinity River Audubon Center and Overlook Park are already completed and available to the public. But, like I suggested earlier, she didn't want her question answered, she just wanted a platform and she wouldn't have listened to the answer anyway because it would not have fit her agenda.

Finally, is there an electrician anywhere in the vicinity of the Lake Highlands Freshmen Center? The lights in the auditorium flickered throughout the meeting and it was distracting and annoying. That could be fixed and what's more, funds for fixing it will come from the budget of the Richardson School District. Can't beat that.

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