By Heather Wright

Youth sports is a hallowed topic in Prince George’s County. The county has produced so many professional basketball players that NBA star Kevin Durant spearheaded the 2020 Showtime documentary “Basketball County: In the Water” to explore the phenomenon. Durant himself grew up in Seat Pleasant and played with the PG Jaguars, an Amateur Athletic Union youth basketball team. “Without the rec centers and team sports, I don’t know where I would be right now,” Durant told The Washington Post, following the documentary’s release.

Some parents, student athletes and youth sports representatives think the current recreational system has been failing the county’s young athletes. They want the county to have its own recreation authority, pulling recreation funding, programs and personnel from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC).

The M-NCPPC is a bi-county agency which was founded in 1927 to provide long-range planning, and park acquisition and development to Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. 

In 1970, the commission’s responsibilities expanded to include the administration of Prince George’s County’s public recreation program. 

The program is primarily funded by a separate recreation tax on real and personal property. For fiscal year 2022, this tax will generate $89.1 million for the commission, according to the M-NCPPC. Montgomery County’s recreation department, formed in 1954, has a FY 2022 budget of $43.7 million. (According to 2020 U.S. Census data, Montgomery County is the most populous county in the state, with 1,062,061 residents; Prince George’s County ranks second, with 967,201.)

Originally, legislation (House Bill 1057) would have 1) authorized a county recreation authority; 2) established a workgroup to study how to create the new county recreation authority and provide recommendations about this to the county council; and 3) ensured that any employees transferred from the M-NCPPC to the new recreation authority would retain their current salaries and benefits.

The amended bill, which passed the Maryland House of Delegates in a 131-0 vote in March and is currently in the state senate, retains only the recreation workgroup; it no longer includes the establishment of a county recreation authority as a foreordained conclusion. Bill amendments also expanded the workgroup and extended the timeline for when the group would present its recommendations to the county council, from Dec. 1, 2022, to April 11, 2023. 

According to the amended bill, workgroup recommendations will be affirmed with a simple majority vote. The workgroup will have 15 members, four of whom will be appointed by the county executive. 

County Executive Angela Alsobrooks has consistently spoken in favor of the establishment of a recreation authority, one structured like the county’s quasi-governmental redevelopment and revenue authorities. She has been critical of the current state of county youth sports, as administered by the M-NCPPC. During a March Maryland house delegation committee hearing, Alsobrooks compared county recreational and community-based girls’ basketball teams for the current season, noting that Howard County has 140 teams, Montgomery County has 133, Anne Arundel has 111 and Prince George’s County has eight.

Others who are dissatisfied with current county recreation services cite poor sports facility maintenance, difficulties with permitting and use of facilities, a restricted array of programs, and a lack of transparency.

Those  who oppose a county recreation authority say that the M-NCPPC already provides the county with high quality recreation services. They are also concerned that those in favor of a recreation authority are focusing on youth sports to the detriment of other populations and recreation services.

A Feb. 19 M-NCPPC position paper noted that the commission regularly evaluates its recreation program: “A recent survey suggests that County households with a favorable opinion about the value of the Commission’s recreational services outnumber those with an unfavorable opinion by 6-to-1.”

During the March hearing, county resident Diane Schwarz said that she moved to the county 12 years ago because of the M-NCPPC’s reputation. She noted that the commission was one of the few organizations in the state that pivoted extraordinarily well to continue services during the pandemic. “I’ve had 21 friends who have left Maryland over the …  past three years, and to a person … their only dismay was losing the services that the parks and planning commission provided.”

The bill is considered emergency legislation and “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public health or safety.” Upon passage by at least three-fifths of the state senate, it would take immediate effect.