Spurred by an outcry from residents to make parks safer, the city’s Budget Oversight Committee will request a review of restoring the park ranger program at its September 2 meeting at City Hall.
In a letter sent to Mayor Robert Garcia and City Council, the 22 parks, business and neighborhood associations outlined the crime, drug use and other nuisances that they say are ruining area parks for residents. The letter cited a string of drug dealer arrests at Bixby Park over the last two years as well as it not being “out of the ordinary to see teens and young adults exhale plumes of pot smoke within feet of the playground area.”
Although they don’t expect the council to completely restore the park ranger program, they are hopeful that given the budgetary surplus, an increase in patrol can be accommodated.
The letter reads, “The state and condition of a public park is a good indicator of how safe a neighborhood is. The neighborhood associations that support park rangers would like to see LBPD focus on crime in residential areas and business corridors, and the addition of a park ranger presence that will tackle crime at our city parks, particularly the ones that are struggling to maintain a safe and positive environment for park users.”
Councilwoman Suzie Price, who represents the 3rd District, which is home to Bluff Park, said that that the concerns expressed to her by residents in her district are both sad and disappointing. However, though Price says public safety is a major concern for the council, the tight and still-to-be-determined budget coupled with the need to listen to all departments’ requests for funds means it will take time for the council to decide if additional funds can be allocated, and where they can be applied. Price said that public safety, especially at parks, is something that can and should be improved citywide.
“Park safety should be a major priority for our city,” Price said. “If the kids in our community can't safely play in our parks, then we are doing something wrong. We have many beautiful parks in this city. Some, like Bixby Park, are located within very close proximity to the beach. We need to make sure that we don't just maintain the grass and structures at our parks, but also create a space where people feel comfortable congregating and playing with their children.”
Since 2008, the park ranger’s program has undergone drastic cuts in both the number of employees and the number of hours they patrol as part of the city’s efforts to battle budgetary deficits.
The ranger program had previously been funded by a general fund grant totaling over $1,000,000. The decision to discontinue the funding of new rangers after the attrition of the ones funded by the grant was made when the council concluded that there were redundancies in the program that caused unnecessary overlaps between rangers and police officers when responding to issues at parks.
Due to the rangers’ absence, the Park Watch program was initiated in May 2008, which asked residents to help police their neighborhood parks. They’re encouraged to report suspicious activities to the Long Beach Police Department’s non-emergency line. The program has garnered mixed responses from residents.
A program called Park Ambassadors, which was created earlier this year and funded by Friends of Bixby Park, was discontinued because of complaints about the ambassadors patrolling the parks not performing their jobs effectively. The organization chose to use the $9,000 donation from Mercedes Benz of Long Beach meant for the ambassador's program to pay for one hour of park ranger service on Saturdays and Sundays through the remainder of the year.
Friends of Bixby Park President Claudia Schou said this program is problematic for many reasons, the first of which being that when reports are made, they’re not always followed by a response from the police department. She also went on to say that although the Park Patrol staff at Bixby Park is enthusiastic and friendly they’re too young and lack the authority that an actual ranger would carry.
The existing budget for the Fiscal Year 2015 that starts October 1 allocates almost $380,000 for 3.5 park rangers. Those rangers spend most of their time patrolling El Dorado Regional Park in the 5th District. Outside of being allowed to patrol Bixby Park for up to 45 minutes on weekend days, the rangers currently don’t service any of the of the 158 other parks in Long Beach.
According to a memo released by City Planner Pat West this week, the cost of restoring the park ranger program to its 2008 level would cost the city $790,000, adding to the existing budget and bringing the total to $1.17 million. The funds would be needed to pay for personal protective equipment, uniforms, training and other costs. What wasn’t factored into that total was the cost of four new vehicles that a new park ranger program would require. West estimated that every park ranger costs the city between $75,000 and $96,000.
What the city has done in the interim is institute a pilot program named Park Security Program which is staffed by adult, non-career employees who are trained by the LBPD. The program is nearly a month old and according to West, the eight hours of patrol provided on weekends and the four hours of weeknight patrolling at Bixby Park and Chittick Field, where the program is being tested, “appears to be successful.”
The mayor backed the implementation of the pilot program, although it is currently not funded, noting that depending on the preliminary results, the city might expand it to other locations other than the current patrol areas.
“Ensuring safe parks for all our residents is a top priority for the city, and I’m fully supportive of the City Manager’s plan for the pilot Park Security Program,” Mayor Garcia said. “This is a good way to maintain safety and supplement the excellent work our police officers do patrolling our parks within the constraints of our current budget. I am looking forward to seeing the results of the pilot program so we can consider whether to expand it to other parks as needed.”