Armed in the park

City Council budget includes proposal to turn park rangers into sworn officers

A park ranger opens the gate north of Sycamore Pool at One-Mile Recreation Area.

A park ranger opens the gate north of Sycamore Pool at One-Mile Recreation Area.

CN&R file photo

More than ever, Chico’s park rangers are coming face-to-face with a “hardened criminal element” in the city’s green spaces, Police Chief Mike O’Brien said during the Chico City Council meeting on Tuesday (April 18).

“Our parks have changed—not for the better,” he said. “I think everyone realizes that. … We trained our park rangers to carry Tasers for that very reason.”

And they could start carrying guns as soon as this summer. While presenting his department’s draft budget for fiscal year 2017-18, O’Brien called for the city’s three park rangers to become sworn officers and work as part of Chico PD’s Target Team. “It’s really a match made in heaven,” he said.

The rangers would wear their regular uniforms and patrol the same areas—Bidwell Park, City Plaza and Children’s Playground—but wield the enforcement power of police. O’Brien argued that the move would better protect people using Bidwell Park and the rangers themselves at a relatively low cost—$45,000 to $50,000 annually.

Rangers would respond to calls outside of the park only during emergency situations. “Let me assure you that I value the interpretive nature of our existing park rangers,” O’Brien said. “I want the same welcoming and approachable demeanor but with a greater degree of enforcement flexibility. I want community policing in our parks.”

Not everyone was sold on the proposal, however. Councilman Karl Ory was displeased that it came forward as a budget item rather than a policy discussion, and without review by the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission. Several community members said they were concerned that giving the rangers more enforcement responsibilities would direct attention away from an already neglected and deteriorating Bidwell Park—that there would be less focus on outreach, education and protecting natural resources.

“Based on that we constantly need more police staff, I think police officers are busy people,” speaker Matt Bacior said. “And I have a feeling that [park rangers] already have jobs.”

Members of the council had mixed reactions. Vice Mayor Reanette Fillmer said it was “a great idea,” given that rangers tie up police resources by calling for backup when they encounter threatening situations in the park. Councilwoman Ann Schwab was more skeptical and asked for an official description of the park rangers’ new responsibilities, which City Manager Mark Orme agreed to provide during an upcoming meeting.

A final decision will be made during the City Council’s budget session in June.

The draft proposal for the city’s 2017-18 budget also adds three police officers—two for traffic enforcement and one school resources officer. The Chico Fire Department will not benefit from a similar boost.

Firefighters have struggled to meet the demand for service since the council voted to reduce the department’s daily staffing from 17 to 14 firefighters in March, said Fire Chief Bill Hack. He wants at least one more on the line at all times.

“That may not sound like a lot, but it would have a substantial and positive effect,” he said.

The budget does not allocate funding for more firefighters, however. Mayor Sean Morgan said he wants to rebuild staffing incrementally and the council is “well aware of the pain the fire department is feeling.” But it’s a balancing act. Public safety is far and away the city’s greatest expense; Chico PD accounts for 49 percent of the 2017-18 budget, and 25 percent will go to the fire department.

Overall, the city has clawed its way into the black after falling into a $15 million general fund deficit just four years ago. The general fund is balanced, and the city has $2.5 million in its emergency reserves (the target is about $10 million). General fund revenue is estimated at $49.6 million, a 2 percent increase over 2016-17.

More negatively, the city remains $6 million short of what it needs to keep up with street maintenance, and $2.2 million short of filling every position currently requested by department heads, said Administrative Services Director Scott Dowell. And the long-term outlook is sobering: The city’s CalPERS obligations for the upcoming fiscal year total $6.5 million, and that’s projected to skyrocket to nearly $10 million by 2022-23.

“We’re projecting that for every dollar spent on miscellaneous wages, 61 percent is going to go to retirement,” he said. “It brings up a lot of questions.”