Baltimore parks department is falling short of 2018 city equity law, audit finds

Published on: December 21, 2022 4:07 PM EST|Updated on: December 22, 2022 9:16 AM EST

Phillip Blackwell Director of Middle Branch Fitness and Wellness Center cuts a ribbon alongside Mayor Brandon Scott and other Parks and Rec employees during the ribbon cutting ceremony for Middle Branch Fitness and Wellness Center, in Baltimore, Wednesday, November 9, 2022.
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Baltimore’s parks department lacks processes to ensure that it is targeting resources towards marginalized communities, making it harder for the agency to meet city goals for rolling back generations of disinvestment in Black and low-income parts of the city, an audit has found.

As a result, Baltimore City Recreation and Parks has fallen short of full compliance with a 2018 city law requiring agencies to factor the implications for racial, income, gender and religious equity into budgeting and decision making, according to the report presented Wednesday before the Board of Estimates. In addition to an underdeveloped equity plan, the routine audit, which focused on the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years, found deficiencies in the parks department’s inspection protocols.

While the report focuses on Recreation and Parks, it marks the city’s first audit into its own compliance with the 2018 equity law, legislation introduced and championed by Mayor Brandon Scott when he was a City Councilman. The statute requires that all city agencies appoint an equity coordinator and implement plans to identify and reverse disparate outcomes based on race, gender and income. The law sets the expectation that agencies will enact policies and fund projects to help ensure an equal chance at success for individuals of all races, genders and incomes.

Scott said after Wednesday’s meeting that he doesn’t think the audit findings are an indication the city is having trouble implementing his equity legislation. Recreation and Parks has already prioritized projects in historically underinvested areas, the mayor said, noting ongoing work in areas like Park Heights, Curtis Bay, and West Baltimore, in addition to two East Baltimore facilities. But he added that years of funding neglect for the parks department has led to shoddy record keeping that hampers the city’s ability to determine a baseline for equitable investments.

“That’s the hard part.” he said.

Still, the audit findings suggest a learning curve in the city’s ability to quantify and target gaps in equity.

Comptroller Bill Henry said in a statement that “equity should be paramount in all City operations” and suggested Rec and Parks move quickly to address the audit findings. But the Democrat and former City Councilman added that the audit reveals a larger issue with the city’s implementation of the equity code. Too often, agencies identify areas in need of services based on 311 requests. Those calls can skew towards whiter and more affluent areas, Henry said, a reality that “clashes” with the city’s equity law and “sets our agencies up for failure.”

Though Baltimore’s equity law went into effect in December of 2019, the audit found that Rec and Parks has not yet fully implemented a process for assessing equity in its budgeting decisions and lacks a baseline plan for meeting the city’s equity standards. Rec and Parks has a designated equity coordinator on staff, but the audit found that the agency does not have a standardized way of evaluating which parks are in greatest need of capital improvements to achive the equity goal. And though the parks department includes equity when evaluating projects, the audit found that the agency has no formal, written benchmarks to determine how it does so.

In addition to incomplete plans for addressing equity, Rec and Parks does not have an effective, efficient process for inspecting public spaces, according to the audit. There is no minimum number of visits that managers must take to parks, or documented methodologies for determining which parks need inspections, the report found. That leaves the city’s five park managers to prioritize visits to its 263 parks on their own, possibly leading to maintenance oversights and inequitable uses of their time, the report states.

Jacia T. Smith, the parks department’s chief of staff, told the spending board that the agency agrees with the findings of the audit, but added that steps are already underway to improve their focus on equity. The agency has requested funding for a full time position dedicated to targeting equity goals and is in the process of developing a longer term strategy.

“We are confident that the next time we are before you as it relates to equity, we will not only be meeting your expectations — we will be exceeding them,” Smith said.

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The audit also found that several recommendations from prior audits had not yet been implemented. Among them, the agency operated several swimming pools without permits over the past two summers and had not yet formalized policies to track whether service requests have been fulfilled.

Implementing the equity code

Imprinting more equitable decision making into city systems, and targeting resources towards historically disinvested communities, has been central to Scott’s platform as mayor. It’s a goal that former City Solicitor Andre Davis sees as both paramount and challenging. Davis was the sitting solicitor when the City Council passed the equity law in 2018.

“I remember thinking, man, this is really going to be tough,” recalled Davis, who also previously served as a federal judge. Quantifying and implementing equitable allocations of resources across a city with varying levels of poverty and affluence is a challenging task, Davis said, but he added that it’s an important one for the city leaders to prioritize.

Henry said Wednesday that while the audit focused on Rec and Parks, the rest of city government is having similar issues. The city spent much of the 1990s and 2000s “irresponsibly” neglecting the parks department, the comptroller said, contributing to staffing shortages and exacerbating maintenance needs today.

Baltimore has a long history of unequal investment along racial lines, noted Councilman Zeke Cohen. “I think reversing that pattern is hard. Period,” he said. But the councilman, who supported the equity law when it was passed in 2018, said he has no doubt the mayor is passionate about closing racial and income gaps in the city.

Cohen added that he knows from experience that the majority of calls for services come from neighborhoods that are relatively well-off. While it’s difficult to overcome these disparities through legislation, he said, “It is not only a moral imperative—it’s the law.”

Recreation and Parks oversees 263 parks, 23 swimming pools and 40 recreation centers citywide. The agency was allocated an operating budget of approximately $19 million in the 2021 fiscal year, in addition to $18 million for capital projects.

Earlier this year, Scott allocated $41 million in federal pandemic aid to the parks department for addressing “a systemic lack of investment in recreation.” Last month, the city opened the new $23.1 million Middle Branch Fitness and Wellness Center in South Baltimore.