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Council OKs program for round-the-clock parks, but postpones funding

Friday, February 1, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Council members Thursday approved the idea of keeping three city parks open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, funding for public safety efforts that would accompany the new hours will not be decided until at least mid-February.


Some Council members could also kill the program before it even starts. “In my view, there are a lot of decisions to be made,” said Council Member Laura Morrison. “This doesn’t mean this pilot program happens – it merely gives us the framework to continue on (with) the discussion.”


The three parks in question are the Butler Hike and Bike Trail, as well as portions of the Shoal Creek Trail and the Johnson Creek Trail.


Council action came after an amendment from Council Member Kathie Tovo postponed discussion about what could be up to $3.7 million for new Austin Police Department and Park Ranger coverage of the trails until the Council’s February budget work session. At that time, a variety of possible public safety efforts will be considered, including measures that would – in the view of Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo undermine public safety.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell was the only member of the Council who voted against the item. He argued that the potential risk was too great. “It would be the Council that would be saying that we’re not going to provide the level of safety that the experts said we need to do this project,” he said.


In December, Council delayed action on keeping the parks open 24/7 pending a more detailed cost analysis of the idea. At the time, city management projected that policing the three parks would cost between $2.8 million and $3.1 million annually.


“We’re basically trying to cover an entire shift for the trails and that would be problematic,” Assistant Police Chief Raul Munguia said at the time. “With the trails and number of miles that we are looking at, also the fact that the trails are very poorly lit at night, we are looking at 10 officers on each shift.” (See In Fact Daily, Dec. 11, 2012.)


The proposal returned to Council members on this week’s agenda. At a regular Tuesday work session, Riley seemed to be hedging toward a patrol provided only by the city’s park rangers. “I think there was a general agreement that it did not make sense to spend $3 million to have dozens of police officers working overtime to cover these three trails,” he reminded his colleagues. “So we were looking for other possible solutions…what we realized that there are opportunities to work with park rangers.”


Parks and Recreation Department officials initially put their costs for such an enterprise at roughly $600,000. This would include additional man-hours and equipment.


However, when prompted Tuesday by Leffingwell, City Manager Marc Ott suggested that park ranger patrol of the three 24/7 facilities would not be enough. “This is not, from an operational standpoint, a matter of rangers replacing the efforts of (the Austin Police Department),” he said.


In other words: Instead of reducing the program to an annual $600,000 expense, the park ranger approach would simply add that figure on to the end of the existing $3.1 million estimate. The cost of that total program would be $3.7 million.


Riley responded, “Of course, in the lengthy discussions I had with staff this never came up. No one ever suggested that we would have dozens of new police officers out there on the trails – and, on top of that, we would also have new park rangers out there at night covering the same ground that (Austin Police) are covering.


When Riley brought the item forward Thursday, he left some ambiguity about what public safety efforts would go along with the new hours. Morrison eventually dragged out the full scope of Riley’s motion.


“I sort of took from your motion that we are going to go forward only with Park Rangers,” she said.


“That is true,” said Riley, before adding a dig that rang through the past week’s discussion. “And Public Works staff has been supportive of this approach. But apparently, they’ve been overruled – and they’re not even allowed in the room at this point.”


It appeared as though a motion from Tovo to delay the entire item might pass. Then she offered an amendment that pushes off only the funding discussion.


Riley accepted, and the vote – and at least the idea of keeping the parks open – moved forward.


The delay in the funding question will also give police officials time to get a baseline for the number of incidents that happen in Austin’s parks. Further, it will give Council members a chance to better vet the public safety costs associated with Riley’s plan.


Should Council members not feel satisfied with the public safety coverage that they can afford, Tovo’s amendment leaves room for the program to stop. If it continues, Riley set June 1, 2013 as the first day that parks would be open later.


Morrison added two amendments that allow her and her colleagues to either curtail the hours that the parks would be open or limit the number of parks included in the program.


The Council’s budget work session is on Feb. 12. Further action could come at the Council meeting on Feb. 14.

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