Illustration by Alex DeSpain

WILLOW RYAN loved working as one of Portland's park rangers—that small but popular band of city workers counted on for their kinder, gentler approach to law enforcement in our parks. Three days a week since September 2012, rain or shine, she'd suit up and do her job with a smile.

That changed early last month. Ryan and another colleague received letters saying they were getting laid off. Two others have since been given the same news—sending a ripple of concern through the ranger program. Other jobs have been left unfilled.

Parks bureau officials blame money. The bureau had some one-time funding that's since expired—meaning it can no longer afford to float so many rangers during Portland's rainy season, when park use drops off.

"We reduced staff this winter," says Art Hendricks, the bureau's security manager. "That's typical for us."

But the fallout has not been so cut-and-dried. The job cuts have also landed at a sensitive junction in a months-long labor fight with the city's rangers—many of whom are hoping to form a union with LiUNA Laborers' Local 483. A judge last month issued a ruling allowing that union fight to proceed against the city's objections, and now the city attorney's office and Parks Commissioner Amanda Fritz face a deadline on whether to keep pushing back.

Moreover, those layoffs, and the stir they've caused, come at a crucial moment in Portland City Council's effort to chart its fiscal future in the wake of a budget surplus and improving city revenues.

Hendricks tells the Mercury he's working on a plan to cut back on seasonal rangers by hiring more permanent, full-time rangers—who not only are paid more, but also receive benefits. And Fritz, burnishing her pro-worker credentials, says she sees the rangers' more visible fight as merely the opening line in a much broader conversation about the hundreds of other part-time workers the parks bureau relies on to save money while keeping its parks and community centers from falling into disrepair.

"The rangers are very visible, because they're organizing. But it's a much bigger conversation," says Fritz, who took over the parks bureau earlier this year. "I was not aware of how poorly funded our parks system is. How can we find adequate funding so we provide a great parks system, and are honest with and appropriately compensating our workers?"

The labor component, at least, could be coming to a head in the next couple of weeks.

City officials are running out of time to decide whether to challenge the judge's ruling, issued November 20 by the Oregon Employment Relations Board, letting part-time workers and full-time rangers join the same bargaining unit. The deadline to answer, according to the attorney's office, was Wednesday, December 4.

Officials say that's an unusual arrangement for the city, which usually prefers seeing part-time workers form their own bargaining units. In fact, if not for rangers' insistence on banding together, officials say, the union issue may have been solved months ago. The rangers first had a meeting with Mayor Charlie Hales in March asking the city to voluntarily recognize their effort.

Fritz's office on Tuesday, December 3, said the commissioner was still working on a reply with the attorney's office and the city's bureau of human resources.

Getting the ranger numbers right, especially if it's part of a deeper discussion about parks staffing, will take much longer, although there is some hope that an accord might be reached. Rangers, union officials, and parks officials all agree the current setup isn't ideal.

Currently, Hendricks says, there are seven full-time rangers, up from one when the program started. Union officials count at least seven seasonal rangers, not including anyone due to be laid off. Not only are the seasonal workers paid less, but their hours are also capped over the calendar year. If an experienced seasonal ranger hits 1,400 hours, they must step down until the next year—when someone less experienced might be called on to fill in.

"That makes no sense," says Ryan, who plans to continue helping the union effort. "It's not logical to hire seasonal rangers, and prepare them to go out, only to cut them. My goal is to have my position back."