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Cheap fun’s starting to disappear

Submitted by on Thursday, 2 April 2009 No Comment

Maybe this part of the world is different from everywhere else – and that could well be, since the recession started hitting California earlier and is blasting it harder – but the trend here of late is toward cuts that hit children where they play.

A series of small cuts here, big program losses there, fee increases in another place has combined to dramatically cut into options for the next generation. It’s not an impossible problem to solve, though, with a bit of creativity.

Without it, we’ll have more of this:

  • One town’s YMCA closed, mired in $2.8 million in debt and management problems that predate the economic downturn. It took with it numerous sports, after-school and child-care programs.
  • Another city agreed to keep open pools that served 11,000 people last summer – contrary to impressions from Beverley Hill 90210, we don’t all have them in our back yards – but slashed a quarter million from the rest of its recreation budget. No word on where the cuts will be, but the department sponsors programs in everything from ballet to cooking to karate. Officials also have said they’ll look at increasing fees to make up part of the shortfall.
  • The county library system cuts jobs and hours last summer, with many branches closing on Sundays as a result. The last is a blow to working families without flexible schedules.
  • Soccer registration has gone up to $95 for a nine-game season, a 50 percent increase in two years. It’s a huge hit for families with more than one child. Parents have to question why the cost is so high for younger players, who use fields about a third of the size of regulation and have no officials. It appears the small fry are subsidizing older players.

Yes, there are those who question whether government should even be involved in recreation programs. They’re the same folks who blasted one local city’s decision to build a BMX park, partly with donated funds. “Those kids should be doing chores.”

Note to Mr. Van Winkle: The orchards have been gone for a decade. You’re living in suburbia now.

And you’re in a suburbia that nationwide is without adequate park space, increasingly fighting obesity in its youth. You’re in an era that knows the value of recreation in crime prevention, that is aware that the prime hours for juvenile crime are between 2 and 6 p.m. – latch- key time for families without after-school care.

Yet, when governments slash budgets, programs for children and youths often are the first to go because they’re easy to cut. They’re not police and fire – threats of cuts there get a huge constituency hot and bothered. They’re not essential health care. They’re not programs that involve a lot of public jobs that unions clamor to protect.

What they are, though, is the future. And given that we’re saddling them with cleaning up the mess we, the adults, created, they deserve a better “right now” than they’re getting.

Part of the answer could involve the government. What if, instead of increasing rental fees, cities offered free space in under-used buildings.

There’s one in my town that was occupied only 37 hours in January. It’s a small building, which probably explains its lack of popularity, but it’s indoor space with rest rooms and a kitchen nonetheless.

The government then goes to the private sector – a hobby shop, a cake-decorating store, a gymnastics studio – and offers a deal. Free space, the right to sell a reasonably priced supply package if necessary and positive public relations that could hook customers for the rest of their lives. In exchange, the business offers an hour a week to teach a program.

Maybe the city even forms a foundation – or takes advantage of an existing one – so the business owners can provide free supplies that they then could deduct from their taxes.

Yes, some businesses will laugh, particularly studios that usually have no problem packing kids in.

But others will say yes, because they’ll realize it’s good business now and for the future.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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