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Government has helped black community

July 24, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

Last Saturday Washington County's NAACP chapter came to Hagerstown's Wheaton Park to hold its Family Celebration, an event that featured food, fun and speeches by two black leaders who told a crowd of 100 that the city's black community is being ignored by state and local government. In addition, they said recreational and educational opportunities there are lacking.

Tough charges, no doubt. But are the things said by the Rev. James Irvin, the NAACP's president, and state Del. Joanne Benson accurate? To find out, I spoke to a number of local officials about the support they provide.

The easiest charge to debunk was Benson's comment that state officials have written off the black community, allowing it to be "swamped in drugs."

Since 1997 the community has been part of Maryland's HotSpot Community Initiative, starting with a grant of more than $180,000 to add new police, more parole and probation officers and an after-school program.

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A year later, the city's newly formed street crimes unit reported that it had made 355 arrests in the HotSpot in 1998, including 300 drug arrests, about 100 more than were made in the entire city during 1997. Other parts of the city are experiencing drug problems now, some city officers have told me, because dealers have been chased out of the HotSpot.

To check out claims that the black community has been ignored by local government, I talked to County Administrator Rod Shoop.

Shoop said the commissioners hadn't heard from the NAACP in recent years, but did have some requests from Stan Brown Jr., when he was active with Brothers United Who Dare to Care.

Shoop said that Brown asked for help with remodeling an office in the Martin Luther King Center. Shoop said the county put down new carpet, installed new ceiling tiles and gave the group some surplus computers, all at no cost.

Rent at the county-owned MLK Center is free, Shoop said, adding that the county picks up the $88,000 annual cost of running the building, which also includes classrooms used by Head Start and the HotSpot office.

Memorial Recreation Center usually gets $20,000 per year from the county, Shoop said, but took a cut, as did most county-funded agencies this year, to $19,400.

Memorial Rec, as it's known in the community, has gotten about a quarter of a million dollars from the city government since fiscal year 1994-95.

According to George Andreve, manager of the city's Community Development Department, the city has paid for planning and architectural services, energy-efficient windows, flooring, drainage improvements and elevator and upgraded the pool. Locker room and bathroom repairs are in the process of being completed, Andreve said.

All of those are capital projects, Andreve said, and Memorial Rec has so far not asked for any money for operating expenses. Block grant money could be used for that purpose, he said, but would have to be targeted to fund a specific program, he said.

As for United Way, the agency did reduce Memorial Rec's funding by $7,000 this year, said James Taylor, United Way's executive director.

Part of that was due to the fact that the overall campaign receipts were down, Taylor said.

But since United Way has switched to a system known as outcome-based funding, agencies that get funding must show results.

In this case, Taylor said, the committee that reviews agency allocations was "really not convinced the outcomes were there."

Taylor said the members of that community "deserve to have highly functioning recreation and educational programs." But Taylor said the committee was not convinced that what they were being asked to fund would do the job.

Christina Sandeen, United Way's vice president for agency relations and chair of the allocations committee said that cutting the agency was a hard decision.

"But we truly believe the needs are being met by other agencies in the area, like the Boys and Girls Club."

If Memorial Rec would consider partnering with one of them, Sandeen said, then its funding out,look might improve.

In a project initiated by the Jonathan Street community's Neighborhoods First group, the city government upgraded Wheaton Park. In a $49,995 project, the tennis court was rebuilt, the basketball court was relocated, the band shell was repaired and a new play area added. A new volleyball court has yet to be completed, city officials said.

Could local government do more? Certainly, but so could leaders like the Rev. Irvin. City and county governments set aside time in their weekly meetings for "citizen comment." Irvin and his fellow NAACP officers should attend those meetings, talk about what's wrong and how local government can improve things.

The other thing the local NAACP should do is encourage someone from the black community to run for the city council. As I first wrote more than five years ago, not only would it give the community an advocate with clout, it would also show local African-American youngsters that they're not shut out of local government.

Election to the council isn't as difficult as a race for a countywide office. Only 16.7 percent of the registered voters turned out in 2001 and it only took 1,424 votes to win a council seat.

Would it be a difficult job, for about $8,000 a year? Yes, but if doing public service were as easy as making speeches, there wouldn't be much at all to talk about.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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