Don’t reduce hours of operation for county’s parks

This economy has got everybody in a crunch, and Miami-Dade County government officials are feeling the pinch just like everybody else. Tax revenue is down sharply and officials are looking for ways to cut expenditures. Mayor Carlos Alvarez has already submitted a budget that slices huge allocations from areas previously sacrosanct –police and fire protection, the arts, education, even after-school care.

And now comes word that the mayor’s proposed budget will sharply curtail the county parks and recreation budget. Hiring will be frozen, the number of parks employees trimmed, the frequency of workers cutting the grass reduced, even basic hours that parks remain open are set to be scaled back.

Hold on there! You can’t see it in the budget, but if the hours that a park remains open are going to be reduced and in the case of our Nature Centers locked up unless a fee driven program is operating, that means there’s going to be a reduction in the number of athletic, recreation and nature programs that are offered to our young people. And if that happens, you can expect to see a sharp rise in the county’s crime rate. And, while it may not be evident to the casual observer, that means there will be a direct negative affect on the quality of life for all Miami-Dade County residents, but particularly for those people who live in the inner-urban areas and less affluent communities.

Athletic programs attract young people who, without sports participation, might otherwise be hanging out on a street corner or joining a gang. The county’s youth sports programs hosted in the county parks are vital to the social fabric of Miami-Dade. They serve as the lid that helps to keep order in our community.

A kid that is seriously committed to playing on a baseball, football or basketball team, or any athletic endeavor, is a youngster that is not going to be joining a gang or getting into serious trouble with the law. Our county parks and the programs they offer in the afternoon and evening serve to give our young people a place to go after school where they can grow and develop their athletic prowess, gain confidence in their ability to succeed within the boundaries of society’s laws, and not gravitate to the bad influences that are always available in this modern era.

With juvenile delinquency at its highest rates between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays, it is clear that a safe and supervised afterschool program is the link between school and the evening optimist style athletic programs that kids need and deserve. And in many communities where there is no evening activity, these programs represent the only physical activity and mentorship these kids will ever receive.

Certainly, declining tax revenues mandate that cuts must be made in the county budget and there are many obvious areas in that budget that should bear scrutiny. But the hours that our county parks are scheduled to be open and the staffing needed to operate, program and maintain them should not be reduced; the programs they accommodate are too vital to the youth of this community. The park hours of operation and requisite staffing should be exempt from the budget paring knife.

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