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Safe parks act worthy of a vote

October 27, 1996

In a political season that can charitably be described as uninspiring, there is actually something worth voting for.

It's called the Safe Neighborhood Parks Act, one of the most promising crime-fighting ideas to reach a ballot in Dade County.

It won't build a single new prison cell, or put one more police officer on the beat. What it might do is take thousands of at-risk kids off the street and give them places to play.

Working with the nationally recognized Trust for Public Land, a grassroots citizens' coalition proposes to raise $200 million for improving about 170 county and neighborhood parks.

The money would come from a sale of general obligation bonds. Cost to the average Dade property owner: about $8 a year. "The price of a pizza," says Hank Adorno, a former prosecutor who is helping to lead the campaign.

State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and others believe the Safe Parks Act will cut juvenile crime, which is exploding in Dade at a chilling, almost inconceivable pace. They say more kids can be saved if they've got somewhere else to go, and something else to do.

No matter where you live, the parks program would touch your family: in Northwest Dade, soccer and softball fields at Amelia Earhart; in the Grove, refurbishment of the Virrick Gym; in South Dade, lights for the athletic field at Benito Juarez.

There's also money for the Haulover pier, the Crandon beaches, the campground at Greynolds and select purchases of open and threatened green space.

Each project is described on the Nov. 5 ballot—reading through the list would be worth a few minutes of your time.

It sounds almost too good to be true. And if you've been reading the headlines the last few months, the obvious question is: How much of the $200 million really will go to the parks, and how much will be diverted or stolen?

Says Adorno: "I think we've made it politician-proof."

The ordinance provides that the bond money can be used only for capital projects, not for operating costs, debts or exigencies. If a municipality doesn't budget enough funds to maintain a park, it won't receive anything for improvements.

An oversight committee of citizens will be appointed by the Metro Commission, to make sure that the monies are spent only on voter-approved projects, and that beachfront cabanas don't get priority over inner-city gyms.

The ordinance also calls for independent audits, and allows taxpayers to sue if the park funds are misused or ripped off.

That's not to say every penny will be safe from thieves and incompetents. It is Dade County, after all. The program is doomed without keen-eyed, fair-handed supervision.

But strong, overriding arguments favor the parks bond. First, it's been done before successfully, almost 25 years ago. A result was Tamiami Park, Tropical Park and Metrozoo, three of the county's most popular recreation sites.

Second, something tangible must be done for a generation of restless urban kids who are, in shocking numbers, turning to crime and gangs. The cost to taxpayers of incarcerating just one is $40,000 a year. The tab for a career felon is stratospheric.

So the Safe Neighborhood Parks Act becomes a community investment, as well as an act of faith.

Of course the juvenile crisis is too complex to be solved simply by lighting a basketball court or building a swimming pool. But if it keeps one kid off the street corners and out of trouble, that's a pretty good start.

Easily worth the price of a pizza.


English-only repeal won impose Spanish May 16, 1993 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | Stowaways ran in pursuit of their destiny December 4, 1985