The city of North St. Paul has signed off on a plan to contract with Maplewood to provide recreational programming to its residents. Now it's up to its larger neighbor to approve the initiative that would put Maplewood in charge of running fitness classes, senior programs and youth and adult recreation leagues that would be open to residents of both cities.

It is believed to be the first time in the metro area where one city is hiring another to run its entire rec program.

"We've met with both councils, we've done our homework and we feel very confident," said DuWayne Konewko, Maplewood's community development and parks director.

The Maplewood City Council is scheduled to vote on the proposal at its Dec. 13 meeting. If it passes, as expected, the formal agreement would go into effect Jan. 1.

While many Twin Cities communities have partnered to offer specific programs or share facilities, the proposal between the two east metro suburbs is believed to be the first that pairs entire departments, said Michelle Snider, executive director of the Minnesota Recreation and Parks Association.

"We have not heard of entire agencies coming together," she said. "But we are all looking to provide more services more effectively and efficiently, especially in these tight economic times."

For residents of the two cities, the sharing of services will enhance the number of programs that are offered while alleviating strains on city budgets, said Nate Ehalt, North St. Paul assistant city manager.

Popular fitness classes that often fill up in Maplewood will be offered more frequently and housed at the North St. Paul facility. North St. Paul residents, now pool-less, will have access to a full range of aquatics programming based in Maplewood.

North St. Paul will pay Maplewood $75,000 annually over the next four years to organize and coordinate programming. By collaborating with Maplewood, North St. Paul stands to save $200,000 by reducing staff by three at its community center (one is taking another job, and two others will retire in 2011). The city also will save by not duplicating programs already offered by Maplewood, and by having the two cities jointly produce quarterly recreational brochures, Ehalt said.

Talks between the two cites began earlier this year when the North St. Paul City Council began preparing its 2011 budget and predicted it would receive about $500,000 less in Local Government Aid because of the state's budget crisis. North St. Paul surveyed its residents to identify areas that could be cut.

Results showed that residents said recreational programming and arts and culture "were nice to have" but could be eliminated. Ehart said the remaining $300,000 to be cut will come from reductions elsewhere.

The pairing of services should not lead to higher fees, as programs would be priced similarly at either city. Konewko said the Maplewood Community Center also is expanding its resident membership level to include North St. Paul residents.

Combining programming is not a new idea.

A few years ago, Crystal floated a plan to merge its parks and recreation department with nearby Robbinsdale, but neither city acted upon it. Instead, the two Hennepin County communities have remained separate departments, but over the years have joined forces to offer scores of programs and have teamed up with Golden Valley, New Hope, Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center on others.

"That has allowed each city to retain its identity" said Gene Hackett, Crystal's parks and recreation director. "There is that community feeling, community pride."

That was a concern of Lloyd Grachek of the North St. Paul's Park and Recreation Commission, who expressed some reservations about the plan to City Council members before it voted to pass the motion 5-0 at its Nov. 16 meeting.

"A lot of us are afraid we will lose our identity and that North St. Paul will be swallowed up by Maplewood," he said. "What are people going to say when they find out Maplewood is running North St. Paul? I don't want to lose our identity."

North St. Paul Mayor Mike Kuehn acknowledged his concern and stressed that "this is collaboration, not a takeover."

Said Maplewood's Konewko, "I believe that this is the way of the future with regard to parks and recreation. As we move ahead, it's going to be a very challenging environment for parks and recreation."

Staff writer Emma Carew contributed to this report. Tim Harlow • 651-735-1824