Standing outside of the shuttered Rosenwald Center, a New Orleans Recreation Department facility, the first thing you notice is the quiet, the absence of children's voices. The outdoor pool is empty and forbidding, the doors are locked, and except for a few cars in the side parking lot, the center appears abandoned. The kids have moved on, but to where?
It's no secret that in the city's fourth year of recovery, its parks and playgrounds have not rebounded as well as hoped. Before the federal floodwall failures, New Orleans had 187 NORD facilities; now there are 104. Volunteers and nonprofits have done much of the work restoring playgrounds and other recreational areas. NORD has about a quarter of its pre-Katrina staff, and its budget has shrunk by more than $3 million since 2005. Even before Katrina, NORD was a far cry from its 1960s status as a national model. Funding had stagnated, much of the equipment needed replacement, and NORD went through 12 directors in 31 years. The public noticed, and in a 2004 Verne Kennedy poll, 72 percent of those asked said they would vote for a property tax hike that provided increased funding — and 92 percent believed that strong recreation programs with good parks and playgrounds help reduce juvenile crime.
That last statement resonates even more when you consider how much crime has risen since the mid 1980s — about the same time NORD's budgets flat-lined, and NORD programming was cut. What did continue to rise during those same years was the number of inmates in Orleans Parish Prison. In 1974, there were approximately 800 inmates in OPP; by the time of the floodwall failures, there were more than 6,800, giving New Orleans the highest incarceration rate of any large American city. Four years later, NORD's budget is less than $5 million. The parish prison budget is $22.7 million, and Orleans Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman says he'll need $36 million to run the prison in 2010.
The corollary is circumstantial but compelling: The more time kids spend in NORD-sponsored activities, the less time they spend unsupervised on the streets, where they can get into trouble. That's why we wholeheartedly support the recent report presented by New Orleans Recreation Citizens Advisory Panel (CAP) to the City Council's Youth and Recreation Committee.
The panel's main recommendations are reorganizing how NORD is governed and increasing the department's budget by raising its dedicated millage rate. Both of these suggestions will require a public referendum and City Charter amendment. Historically, the mayor appoints the NORD director, making it a political job. The average tenure for NORD directors in the past three decades has been only 2.5 years, creating a culture of instability and a lack of continuity in one of the city's most critical departments. CAP proposes creating a NORD commission to set policy and hire a NORD director. The mayor and City Council members would nominate commission members, with local university presidents making final selections. This governance model would make a director the single point of accountability while allowing directors to stay as long as they perform at a high level, without worrying about who wins the mayor's race.
The three CAP co-chairs — Entergy New Orleans CEO Rod West, civil engineer Roy A. Glapion and local attorney R. Justin Garon, all of whom grew up using NORD's playgrounds and fields — stressed that their proposal will not privatize NORD. The commission would be an independent public body subject to all public records and open meetings laws. The model for this governing structure is Baton Rouge's successful BREC commission, which enjoys community and political support.
Boosting the NORD budget requires increasing property taxes, but only a little. To double NORD's budget to $10 million a year, homes valued at $75,000 or less would pay no additional property taxes; those worth $150,000 would pay $18.75 a year more, and those worth $250,000 would pay $43.75 a year more. In return, our children and streets will be safer, and at-risk kids will have a chance to learn valuable life lessons.
West says the time is now to educate citizens about the proposals. He wants to bundle them into one charter referendum in the fall of 2010. We agree, and we urge the City Council to take the steps necessary to make that happen — so in years to come, no one will pass a decrepit NORD facility and wonder: Where do the children play?