Time to rethink rec.

Specifically, it’s time to rethink the role the Recreation and Parks Dept. plays in Rutland City.

Briefly, the genesis of this idea was running through a few disconnects in my head … wait, that doesn’t sound right … in my head, I ran through a few disconnects. Yeah, that’s better:

As many of you know, I was briefly out of work. When there’s no income and you get a signup calendar for rec programs, suddenly you start to sweat the entrance fees. I didn’t find the “scholarship” part of the program particularly easy to navigate/user friendly. We didn’t need it, as it turned out, but it got me thinking about a very basic disconnect in the fight over the Giorgetti community center. If you remember, the center went down to defeat in the revote, with the support dropping along with the average income in each ward.

The core argument against the center (and one of the few factually accurate ones) was that many people in the city can’t afford even the most basic recreation programs. I remember at one meeting Ejay Bishop, the head of the department getting quite angry and saying that the department went out of its way to make sure everybody’s kid could get in.

So that’s the first disconnect: Rec wants everybody to feel like it’s “their” rec. department, but the voters don’t see it that way. The second was at the aldermanic forum put on by the Creative Economy. One of the more well-informed candidates (might have been Chris Siliski or Christopher Robinson) was talking about the rec. department and defending it by noting how much revenue it generated for city coffers. It was in the multiples of dollars of revenue for every dollar spent in the rec. budget. The exact dollars aren’t critical, but at some point, I’ll go look them up …

The point is that recreation is a net profit for the city, and it has been for several years. Various city administrators, including Ejay and Hizzonner Chris Louras (another Chris … do you have to be named “Chris” to be elected in Rutland? Just checking …) proudly run that statistic out every time the rec. budget is trotted out for perusal.

But combine those two ideas: The city’s poorer residents feel like the rec. department does not serve them, and rec. turns a profit on programming. Doesn’t it suggest we need to increase the department’s outreach to people who think recreation is too expensive, even if it means cutting closer to making the department a break-even proposition, instead of a money-maker?

Look, it’s really easy to sneer at the folks driving around in beaters, smoking, with their kids in the car, or to bemoan the percentage of food stamps (3SquaresVT for the politically correct) going to soda and Cheez Puffs. But if we want to turn recreation into a positive force for the entire community, instead of just those in the middle class and already active, we need to ask ourselves if we are doing everything we can to make it happen. I say we’re not.

I would like to see more user-friendly screening for needs. If it means letting a few people dead set on screwing the system out of a few bucks succeed, but getting more low-income people into the program, so be it.

I would also like to see the city pushing rec into the low-income homes instead of waiting for them to come to the city. Direct outreach through the schools might be a place to start, using the list of kids eligible for free and reduced lunch. Send a note home with those kids saying by the way, you’re probably eligible for free soccer this season, then have a sign-up in school for both paid and free participants. Make it fun, instead of a bureaucratic grilling. This is an excerpt from the form available online:

6. MONTHLY GROSS INCOME: (ALL HOUSEHOLD INCOME AND IT MUST BE VERIFIED.)

A. Wages: ____________ D. Food Stamps: ____________ G. Alimony: ________________

B. RUFA: _____________ E. Housing Assist. : __________ H. Child Support: ___________

C. Social Security: ____________ F. Workers Comp: ____________ I. Other: ______________

Would you want to go through that so your kid could play soccer unless you were already convinced it’s something he/she ought to be doing? No, me neither. But this is the starting point for participation for those needing help.  I believe Ejay when he says they want all the kids in the city to be able to use their services. But I don’t think they’ve looked at it from the other side of the “scholarship” form.

What’s the worst that can happen? You get too many kids involved in youth sports and because of overwhelming demand, the city has to pay in a little extra instead of using signup fees to pad out the slush, errr, general fund. When kids soccer next starts up in Monsignor Connor park, I would love to see kids from all around the immediate area walking to the park to play in the city leagues. Instead, the people who are using the leagues are those of us with enough money, driving through Happy Valley. Solve that problem, and the rec center will pass in all four wards.

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