FOR A CITY enamored of its green spaces, Portland's weirdly absent when it comes to patrolling them.
Consider: The city has 212 parks, and thousands more acres in natural areas. All told, parks land makes up more than 12 percent of Portland's total area.
And to watch over that vastness? To assist users and "tut-tut" casual inebriants and—as a last resort—ban problematic parkgoers or call police? Portland employs just seven full-time rangers, with a roving cast of as many as 12 seasonal helpers in busy months.
But it's worse than even that.
Deals the parks bureau struck years ago—wrapped up in efforts to expand the ranger program—have created a situation where the sparse staff patrols the Westside almost exclusively. Eastside parks, which sit in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods and inspire almost two-thirds of total calls for service, get just 14 percent of rangers' attentions, according to a report presented to Portland City Council on March 11.
"Even more significant, the services in the east tend to be reactive and less proactive," the report says.
It's shockingly unfair news, and it comes at a time when rangers might be most useful.
As staffers from other city bureaus stressed repeatedly at the council meeting: Portland's parks have seen a sizeable uptick in homeless campers in recent years.
In places like Washington Park, along the Springwater Corridor, and in boats that park at public docks, the ranger staff is reporting hundreds more encounters with homeless people than just a few years ago.
That's just where they patrol.
"The lack of ranger coverage for our Eastside properties makes it nearly impossible to keep up with calls we get about camping and other dangerous situations," Maggie Skenderian, a watershed manager at the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, told city council. "We're at our wit's end."
Given all this, an increase to the ranger program might seem like an easy call. And it's made more attractive by Parks Commissioner Amanda Fritz's pledge to have representatives from homeless rest area Right 2 Dream Too begin training ranger staff in sensitively talking to homeless people who use the parks.
But even in fat budget times—the city could have at least $31 million extra to play with next year—Eastsiders aren't guaranteed the service they deserve.
For next year's parks budget, Fritz has requested $84,500 to convert six seasonal ranger jobs to full time (less than the nine positions she spoke of in January). That might not amount to more services. As part of Mayor Charlie Hales' requirement that any new money be offset by cuts, the positions could come at the expense of remaining seasonal rangers.
"In some ways it will decrease services," Fritz said at the March 11 meeting. "What we really need are seven more full-time rangers in addition to the seasonal rangers."
Even so, Fritz's request is far from guaranteed. The city budget office has recommended denying the money, since it wouldn't improve service levels. And Hales, while agreeing on the need for more rangers, says he wants solid data on how many more should be added. He also wants to be sure there's money to continue paying the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office's River Patrol to patrol local docks.
"I love the rangers program," Hales said. "But before we get to simply funding more rangers with the money we have, we've got some things to work out."