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Park rangers get funding for six additional staff members

Wednesday, October 6, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

For months, the Parks and Recreation Department has been pleading for additional park ranger staffing resources. Finally, the city has answered its prayers with $615,000 in increased funding for the department’s Park Ranger program.

In a memo sent to Mayor Steve Adler and City Council last Friday, Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano detailed a number of budget items and updates related to the city’s massive effort to reimagine public safety in Austin in Fiscal Year 2022. Lower on the list was the item PARD has been looking forward to: $615,000 in increased funding for the Park Ranger program.

Also on the list was $2.8 million allocated for the Housing Trust Fund, $1.5 million dedicated to community health initiatives and $1 million for the Office of Violence Prevention.

The additional fundings come as welcome relief to an understaffed department. Leading up to the summer, the rangers had been grappling with increased off-leash dog violations, illegal parking, notifications of homeless encampments, alcohol in parks, and “inappropriate behavior in greenbelts.”

The money will fund six additional full-time ranger positions, which at first may not seem all that much. But it’s important to note that the park rangers run an incredibly lean operation. Right now, 21 rangers are responsible for 300 parks; an additional six would represent more than a 25 percent increase in staff.

There’s also another question that remains: Will the additional resources be enough to ease the staffing issues rangers have faced? After all, even after new rangers are hired, there will still be only 27 rangers serving a city of nearly a million people. Austin Public Information Specialist Kanya Lyons says the answer is still up in the air.

She told the Austin Monitor that while demand for the services provided by park rangers is expected to increase as the city grows, the upcoming year “will help determine how additional resources can provide additional coverage so that we can have a better understanding of the ideal staff size.”

An idea that seems to be gaining some traction is a model where the department retains a set of regular full-time staffers year-round and hires seasonal employees for the busy months.

One part of the department’s operations that is a little more certain is the park rangers’ relationship with the Austin Police Department. Previously, APD had officers assigned to patrol parks and had a more direct connection with the park rangers. That changed in January when APD disbanded the park police unit and assigned those officers to general patrol.

This process of transitioning park safety operations raised questions about whether the scope of park ranger responsibilities would increase, but as the months have unfolded, that hasn’t really panned out.

Lyons said, “Park rangers continue to be ambassadors in the park system to help inform and educate park visitors on how to recreate responsibly and safely enjoy Austin parks.”

A PARD director’s report released last week notes that through the month of August, the most frequent interaction park rangers had with the public were pedestrian inquiries. Other contacts were related to things like dogs off leash, help with directions and parking issues.

PARD expects that the new rangers will be hired by early 2022.

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