Just how unsafe are Gilbert's parks? And how much of a difference would it make to deputize park rangers who currently maintain the grounds and interact with the public, but can't cite people who break park rules?
A summit on Tuesday between the Town Council and the Gilbert Parks and Recreation Advisory Board will tackle this issue, attempting to reach consensus where there isn't much now.
Community services director Jim Norman recommends in a report that the town tweak the duties of its eight park rangers and supplement them with volunteers, but says the training, equipment and additional pay involved with giving them enforcement duties would run almost $660,000 during a financially pinched time.
The parks board responded to his report at a meeting last week by unanimously voting to direct town staff to begin outlining the steps necessary to move toward giving the rangers citation booklets.
Board member Bobbi Smith said Friday that the cost issue doesn't concern her that much, for a couple of reasons. "If it were just a one-time check I could see that as a concern, but it wouldn't. It would be phased in over time," she said. "And reading over the list of training and equipment needed to do this, a lot of what was listed as equipment we needed is stuff we already have."
The equipment listed in the report included four pickup trucks, three ATVs and three bicycles.
The board's recommendation will be sent on to the Town Council. Councilman Don Skousen was at that same parks board meeting, heard the same presentation, and walked away with the sense that this is not the right time to pursue an enforcement program.
"It doesn't look good, based on the discussion we heard last night," he said.
The alternative, lower-cost strategy offered by Norman in the report involves shifting three of the current rangers to the parks maintenance staff and assigning maintenance staff members to one park full time, an approach he said has been successful in curbing waste cleanup violations at Cosmo Dog Park.
Additional staff would be deployed at the town's skate park to block bicyclists or other prohibited users from entering, kicking off a volunteer "adopt-a-park" program and establishing more regular communication between rangers and the Gilbert Police Department.
Gilbert has about 30 park sites, some of the largest being Freestone, Discovery, Crossroads and McQueen parks and the Riparian Preserve. A reported stabbing at Freestone Park in June highlighted neighborhood concerns about drug deals and other illegal activities in the park at Lindsay and Guadalupe roads.
Skousen said he hasn't gotten feedback from constituents who feel Gilbert parks are unsafe, but has heard rangers do sometimes face abuse from rowdy park patrons who know they won't be getting anything beyond a verbal warning from the rangers.
"I think one of the problems we have is these folks are really disrespected by kids, and I guess adults, too," he said. "I guess they disrespect them, they flip them off or whatever, because they know they can't do anything to them unless the police get there."
Police are now being called out to enforce park rules, something Smith said officers shouldn't have to do. The park rangers could handle that, she said; it's handcuffing them by limiting them to talking to violators that wastes money.
"I don't get the budget part, because if we're telling the same people over and over not to do something without any consequences, then we're wasting our time," she said. Phoenix offers free training that the park rangers could use, she added.
Councilwoman Linda Abbott, a longtime proponent of giving park rangers enforcement powers, said the town's financial concerns are real, but the town can and should start small with the concept and expand it as more money becomes available.
"I realize we have budget constraints but even with that the town has continued to acquire park land, and that brings a responsibility for more supervision and park programming," she said.
The Town Council and parks advisory board will meet 7 p.m. Tuesday in Conference Room 233 of the Gilbert Municipal Center, 50 E. Civic Center Drive.