- The Washington Times - Monday, August 6, 2001

D.C. park officials are breathing a sigh of relief this summer: Grass is being cut before it is knee high, the 42 pools have opened on time — with two opening early — and, for the most part, trash is being collected on a regular basis.

That's in contrast to last year, say city officials and residents.

"I think they are doing a pretty good job," said D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat, the chairman of the council committee overseeing the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. "It is running far more smoothly than in the last couple of years. We're having a great summer."

In many cities, pool openings, mowing and trash collection are basic services that residents expect with little fanfare. But District residents lost confidence in the Parks and Recreation Department after last summer's string of debacles under director Robert Newman.

Endless complaints poured into the department over uncut grass, unkempt parks and recreation centers, and dirty pools. Contracts were mishandled and the director was accused of mismanagement and inappropriate use of resources.

Mr. Newman resigned as director last fall, and Neil Albert was named as his successor.

Mr. Albert didn't arrive promising miracles, but did vow progress and responsiveness and a return to basic services — upkeep of pools, parks, ball fields and recreation centers.

"Things are going well, knock on wood," Mr. Albert said. "There are three more weeks to go. I am keeping my fingers crossed."

He delivered services by starting early, hiring contractors in January, he said. The grass has been mowed regularly at most locations since April — a month ahead of last year. A schedule of the work is posted on the department's Web site (www.dpr.dc.gov/main.shtm ).

In early spring, Mr. Albert began hiring additional employees to prepare the pools for staggered opening times, which he described as a "massive undertaking" because of their age and a lack of regular preventive maintenance. Trash collection is monitored more closely, and employees are held accountable for their areas of responsibility.

"We are reaping the benefits of early planning and extra resources. While we are happy, we aren't satisfied because we still have a way to go," Mr. Albert said.

Officials said summer programs for approximately 2,000 children have run smoothly.

Still, some problems persist. Mr. Chavous said the department needs to offer more programs that will attract teen-agers.

"We've been hearing from teen-agers that what they offer is just not interesting to them," he said.

Council staffers say the number of public complaints has decreased dramatically from last year. They now hear mostly about restrooms and water fountains in need of repair and occasionally trash buildup after events.

"It's minor things lately," said D.C. Council member Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat. "And even then, they are much more responsive to calls. It's hard to say anything negative because of the level of improvement since last summer, but it is still by no means a utopia."

In Mr. Fenty's ward, problems include trash and drug sales at some of the recreation centers.

As summer draws to a close, Mr. Albert said, the department wants to begin looking at upgrading aged facilities, building new ones and improving the city's green spaces.

He said the conditions of the city's facilities and 800 acres of parkland are the result of "decades of disinvestment," which included systematic budget cuts and staff downsizing.

Now the city has pledged $4 million more for next year and $200 million more over the next five years.

The director wants to use the funds to fully staff the department for the first time in years, weed out unmotivated or ineffective employees and train others to be more effective.

He plans to begin renovating the city's swimming pools next year, for the first time in decades, at a cost of $25 million. The project will take five years to complete. He also plans to spend $11 million to construct new utility buildings, install lighting and develop landscape at two community parks in Ward 4 — Emery Park and Takoma Park — by next year. After that, some 354 parks, 71 playgrounds, 100 basketball and tennis courts and 142 buildings are in line for attention.

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