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Thursday, April 24, 2008

City Parks Suffer Dangerous Budget Cut

The Daily News today reported that a result of the Mayor’s all-out assault on Los Angelenos in the form of budget cuts and fee increases will result in serious losses of vital services in City parks. The paper points to two Rec and Parks losses in particular – less clean restrooms and a 50% cut in Park Rangers.

Most people jump right on the mental image of an unclean restroom, but the reality of this Citywide cut is that the far greater loss of the two is actually the Park Rangers.

Park Rangers are perhaps the most recognizable image of any parks service in the United States. However, LA City Park Rangers are far more than an icon. With the increased gang violence and general unrest throughout the City, more specialized park security is a must. L.A. City Park Rangers are fully qualified, POST-certified peace officers. Perhaps even more importantly, Park Rangers are also firefighters, search and rescue professionals, emergency management specialists, paramedics, wildlife specialists, educators, mediators, and community policing specialists. For those who are unhappy with the generous salaries some City employees pull down, Park Rangers are also underpaid relative to other City jobs requiring full peace officer standing. This, plus the fact that there are tons of open peace officer positions in this City, just about guarantees that being a Park Ranger in Los Angeles isn't just a job, but it must be a vocation.

On any given day in at least one of this City’s 400+ parks, Rangers put their unique combination of specialized skills to use on the public’s behalf. During the Griffith Park fire, every Park Ranger in the City demonstrated extreme dedication to their vocation by working more than 95 hours straight. The Rangers’ intimate knowledge of the park was absolutely vital to controlling the May 8, 2007 inferno. It isn’t discussed much in the wake of the usual, well-deserved accolades given to the LAFD, but those closest to the situation know that it was a heroic stand at Bee Rock by Park Ranger firefighters that halted the northeastward advance of that fire. Park Ranger firefighters used their intimate knowledge of the park to determine that this physical location was absolutely key to stopping the fire, and they made the stand that did it.

So here we are with a summer fire season widely predicted to be one of the worst on record nearly upon us. Cutting almost 50% of a single division that is as important to this City as the Park Rangers are not only makes no sense, but it may seriously endanger the lives of the 20 million people who visit Los Angeles parks annually.

The recent mauling of patrons by a Siberian Tiger at the San Francisco Zoo brings up another point. The Los Angeles Zoo is inside of Griffith Park, and the Zoo is far from impervious to animal escapes. The combination of emergency management and wildlife expertise that Park Rangers possess would make them invaluable if such a thing ever happened here. As an aside, it is interesting to note that current SF Zoo Director Manuel Mollinedo, under whose watch the horrific maulings occurred, was a past General Manager of Recreation and Parks in Los Angeles as well as a Director of the Los Angeles Zoo during a time that many of the exhibit enclosures were upgraded, ostensibly to code. Hmmm...

Since they have all the money and resources, I guess the Mayor is assuming the Office of Public Safety will take care of us all. But as was pointed out in an earlier article detailing the creation and performance to-date of OPS, their promise was enticing but their carry-through has been far from optimum, or even adequate for that matter. And Rec and Parks, who is legally mandated to provide security in City parks, has little to no control over OPS which is organized within an entirely different City department.

On May 1st, there will be massive immigration demonstrations in downtown Los Angeles. If they repeat what they did in 2005, 2006, and 2007, the Office of Public Safety will pull every single officer to a man from City parks, libraries, and the Zoo and deploy them all downtown. This means that on May Day, a traditional day to celebrate the coming of Spring, the only peace officers protecting the public in 400+ City parks will be Park Rangers. 50% less Park Rangers, that is, if no one challenges the Mayor’s budget.

It's ironic that also on May 1st, the City's Budget and Finance Committee will hold the hearing on the Mayor's Budget for the Department of Recreation and Parks. So y'all come on downtown May 1 -- skip work, see the protesters and OPS in action firsthand, and give the committee your input on the $cut$ to Rec and Parks while surrounded by a hundred thousand or so of your fellow Angelenos.