Cutting Costs Could Prove Recreational

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When city officials began hiring consultants to audit its programs on a regular basis they knew that the results could help them cut the fat, streamline various city departments and improve their effectiveness.

These audits become more significant in belt-tightening years like this one because officials are looking for ways to save money in every crevice. But Tuesday, the City Council heard the results of a study on the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities that came with mixed reviews.

On one side of the spectrum, the comprehensive and pointed study revealed that there are numerous positive aspects of the current department. On that same token, the consultants made recommendations that would save the city about $2.5 million.

But Matrix Consulting Group, the firm hired by the city for the audit, also recommended numerous improvements totaling about $1.8 million. No action on the report will occur until next year despite being heard by Council Tuesday. The trick is to save money without sacrificing service, officials said, especially in the citys recreation centers that are formative to the citys youth.

I know in tough budgetary times there is going to be an enormous push or pull to do all the cuts and not the service improvements, Councilman Rob Krupicka said. But I would really challenge staff to try not to succumb to that temptation. Just making all the cuts that are recommended and not making the improvements that are suggested has the potential to leave us in even a worse place than the report says we are.

The department is not in dire straits. In fact, the department as a whole is one of only 71 accredited parks and recreation departments in the country and one of the most extensive Ive seen in my 35 years of experience, said Gary Goelitz, vice president of Matrix Consulting Group.

But there are hundreds of issues, prioritized by the consultants, within the broad-reaching department that can be added, altered, enhanced or thrown out to improve it. They range from internal government matters (consolidating staff positions) to programmatic (cooking classes) and maintenance issues (painting a recreation center).

Enhancing management across the board was a theme throughout the study. The current programs offered by the recreation centers in the city are not in line with the current needs of the community, Goelitz said after Councilman Paul Smedberg prompted him. The department is positioned to be a leader in recreation services in Virginia, Goelitz said. What we are trying to suggest is that we need to better employ and manage the staff to ensure the best service delivery occurs.

Goelitz said the management at recreation centers is not always up to par, resulting in a discord between childrens experience and inconsistencies in the citys system of recreation centers. Their performance levels depict a bell-shaped curve, ranging from folks that would be leaders in the profession in any city to folks who need more effective leadership, Goelitz said. The consultant recommended a second manager for the latter cases.

Lenny Harris, founder of the Alexandria youth-oriented nonprofit Operation H.O.P.E., has been actively lobbying the government for better programs at the citys recreation centers, namely Charles Houston.

The programming there at Charles Houston, the Rec. Department seems to neglect, Harris said. Kids were coming up there, they were sitting against the wall; there was nothing for those kids to do. Every time a staffer would come up with an idea, it would get knocked down.

Harris said the kids had little to do at the Houston center (being held at George Washington Middle School) other than flag football and basketball. Even before the old Houston center was torn down to make room for the $35 million structure that will replace it, the only program available was boxing, according to the consultants report.

Harris lobbied for rap, go-go, photography, technical and other classes in the past, but those types of courses take a qualified instructor, which is expensive, he was told. Eventually, other pastimes like ping-pong were added.

Its a whole different kind of skill set thats required these days, Goelitz said. [Recreation Center] managers have to almost be a teacher as well as know the programmatic issues. I would say that I was very impressed with a lot of the new younger hires made in the department. I think thats the generation thats really going to enable the department to make the transition to a different kind of service delivery.

The city faces a unique challenge with the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities in the current economic climate. The study indicates a savings of $655,000 annually if the city follows it word for word, though only time will tell what will stay and what will go. The government needs to cut costs, but services like recreation centers are crucial to students who utilize them after school and Alexandria has a solid infrastructure to improve them.

Its not necessarily a budgetary impact issue, Councilman Justin Wilson said. Its [about] providing a service to our community that our community values and our community needs.

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