Sixteen-year-old Lhadija Sanders is on the front lines of gang violence. She sees it as a junior at Howard School of Academics and Technology and as a resident of South Chattanooga, she said.
That's why keeping the city's recreation centers open longer and having things for teens to do would help curb gang activity, Ms. Sanders said.
"We don't have as many programs for teenagers as we should have," she said Wednesday, standing in the South Chattanooga Recreation Center. "All we have is a basketball court."
Mayor Ron Littlefield's proposed 2010-2011 fiscal year budget could increase property taxes by 64 cents per $100 of assessed value and raise $198.6 million in revenue. Part of the budget also includes an additional $1.7 million to help keep recreation centers open longer hours and fund more programs that could help curb gang activity. Centers now close at 8 p.m. and, during summer hours, at 7:30 p.m.
Council members are studying and debating the budget, hoping to find some areas to cut.
City Council Chairman Manny Rico said Wednesday that recreation center funding was one thing on his list that could be cut.
"I cannot see doing more than what we've been doing," he said.
He said he has talked to people who are involved in recreation centers and found that, without a set curriculum of programming, the centers can act as recruiting centers for gangs.
"Right now, I don't know how we'll spend more money on recreational stuff," he said.
But city officials and others involved in the city's recreation centers paint a different picture.
Chattanooga Parks and Recreation Director Larry Zehnder said the longer hours and programs at rec centers can make a difference, especially the city's brand-new youth development program, which is gearing up to help get teens off the streets.
"When we talk about the youth development program, we're talking about combating the need for some of these young people who are trying to get involved in gangs," he said.
The new budget would unfreeze 13 positions the department cut last year, mostly workers at the recreation centers, Mr. Zehnder said. With new employees, the department could keep the centers open longer, he said.
The funding also would increase the amount of money for additional instructors at summer youth camps, allowing the city to take on more children, he said.
The idea is to give a wide variety of options to the youth, not just throw a basketball on the court and let them play, he said.
BY THE NUMBERS
The Parks and Recreation budget includes money this year that would keep recreation centers open longer and provide money for programs to combat gangs. The proposed budget highlights include:
* $13.3 million: Total requested budget for 2010-2011 fiscal year for Parks and Recreation
* $11.6 million: Parks and Recreation budget for 2009-2010 fiscal year budget
* $1.7 million: Total increase between this year and next year's budgets
* 13: Number of frozen Parks and Recreation employees being proposed as unfrozen
* 8: Total new positions
Source: City of Chattanooga
Greta Hayes, assistant director for Parks and Recreation, said the city created an advisory committee for youth development and got ideas from the children on things that can be done to compete against what is on the street.
Some of those ideas include putting sound studios in recreation centers, having video gaming and putting on programs for things outside of sports such as creative writing classes or camping, she said.
One thing recreation centers need to be is adaptable in a society now dominated by video games, texting and the Internet, she said.
"We have to change for (these) different types of technology," she said.
James Moreland, chairman of the East Chattanooga Weed & Seed group, said he thinks having longer hours for recreation centers and more programming is just one of the steps needed to battle gang activity. The other step is schools, he said.
There need to be education curriculums at the recreation centers to keep the children occupied, he said, but right now recreation centers are being used too much as "playgrounds."
But if the centers stay at their same hours, there is a potential blowback, Mr. Moreland said.
"You'll be exactly where you are now," he said. "The rec centers would continue to be babysitters."