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Tell us why we need new park rangers

Our Opinion
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Security concerns are at the heart of the city's new park ranger plan, which may affect homeless people sleeping in downtown parks.

Before the city of Portland alters how it provides security to its downtown area parks, it first must take the time to explain why such changes are needed.

Portland Parks and Recreation is proposing to reduce the funding it provides through a contract with the Portland Business Alliance - money that the PBA uses to hire private security guards to patrol downtown parks.

These eight guards work two shifts a day to discourage sleeping in the parks and to otherwise help contain some of the more unsavory elements that threaten the downtown business environment. A reduction in their numbers could produce negative consequences for downtown merchants, especially if the city's new park rangers take a more accommodating stance toward camping on public property.

The parks bureau intends to slash the contract funding by $350,000 per year - from $529,586 to $179,586. The business alliance has been awarded this contract every year since 1997. But the proposed contract reduction means that the alliance would be able to fund only one evening shift per day, and with a reduced number of guards. In place of that service, the city would hire three full-time rangers to assist in park patrols. The three officers would be supplemented in the busy times of the year by additional rangers.

It may very well be that the city has legitimate reasons for believing the rangers can do a more effective job in dealing with issues such as substance abuse, homelessness and mental illness. But if so, it has done a poor job of explaining its rationale. Inquiries from Portland Tribune reporter Jim Redden, who did a story on the topic this week at www.portlandtribune.com, have prompted city officials to restate what they plan to do, but they continue to avoid talking about why they plan to do it.

We believe downtown businesses deserve a better explanation. Most businesses seem to believe the private-security program has been helpful in containing problems downtown. In addition to the dollars it gets from the city, the business alliance also receives money for downtown security from other sources, including the Clean and Safe program that's funded by downtown property owners. These sources of cash allow the PBA to provide a more comprehensive security service covering the parks, Pioneer Square, the transit mall and Smart Park garages.

Before the parks bureau proceeds with breaking this system apart, it ought to pause long enough to gather public input, talk with business owners and give full consideration to the potential consequences of this move.