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Questions over Austin Recreation Center management continue

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Questions have re-emerged over the Parks and Recreation Department’s management of the Austin Recreation Center. They come from neighborhood activist Karen McGraw, who in January took a seat on the board charged with advising the city on policy associated with the facility.

 

McGraw, who is also a Jazzercise student at the facility, wrote an email to Assistant City Manager Bert Lumbreras on Feb. 2.

 

In it, she summed up her position: “Last year the Austin Recreation Center was on the chopping block in the budget cycle and was finally rescued by the City Council after Jazzercise students brought this to their attention. Subsequently, I was asked to serve on the…Advisory Board. I attended my first meeting January 11,” she wrote. “I was very disappointed to learn that (the center) was not actually saved in any meaningful way, but still lives on the chopping block today.”

 

A host of interested parties showed up to defend the Austin Recreation Center and the Dottie Jordan Recreation Center after an attempt by PARD to defund them during last year’s budget cycle (See In Fact Daily, Aug. 26, 2011). As a result, Council members instructed PARD not to defund either facility. “I thought that Council made that sort of clear,” said Council Member Laura Morrison.

If PARD did defund one of its recreation centers, they could seek to bring it back through some sort of outside partnership that could include a private entity.

Assistant PARD Director Kimberly McNeeley told In Fact Daily that PARD does “not have a department-specific policy” regarding public-private partnerships. “The department is guided by information that comes out of the Texas Attorney General’s procurement manual,” she said.

 

McNeeley added that a decision to pursue a public-private partnership would hinge on whether or not the arrangement would provide “a significant benefit” to the community.

 

According to McGraw, services declined at the Austin Recreation Center since Council action last fall. McGraw has 10 specific allegations, including the fact that “all children’s programs at (the center) have been terminated,” that “staff has been reduced to all part time, including the site manager,” and that “PARD is still seeking an entity to lease the whole facility renting it back to Jazzercise and a couple of other users.”

 

Lumbreras offered McGraw a direct reply. “I can assure you we have no interest in unloading the recreation center and Council was very clear on their direction along with staff’s clear commitment to work with the community in many of the services,” he wrote.

 

Though McNeeley acknowledges that PARD is actively seeking a partner to lease the facility, and that at least on high profile program has been eliminated from the center’s schedule, she refutes much of McGraw’s email.

 

“That’s not true…they haven’t all been eliminated,” she said, referring to the children’s programs. McNeeley added that the traditional after school program had been cut. She also noted that the building’s site manager and a custodian were both full time employees.

 

However, an In Fact Daily reporter was told by a staff member at the facility that the Austin Recreation Center only offered one class for children, but that class is limited to toddlers with their mothers. The staff member pointed to budget cuts as the reason.

 

McNeeley also said that her department would be back before Council to discuss any partnership. “Council will know what we’ll be doing,” she said.

 

Morrison told In Fact Daily that she has an interest in maintaining a vibrant Austin Recreation Center. “The Austin Rec Center plays an important role and passing it off onto a public-private partnership has me concerned,” she said.

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