Park Board to double number of rangers after 1,153% increase in reported issues

Oct 20 2021, 12:58 am

With Vancouver’s park rangers stretched thin beyond their intended responsibilities, an unanimous decision was made by Vancouver Park Board commissioners on Monday evening to double the number of full-time rangers.

In making their case for the need in increase in frontline staff, Park Board management indicated there has been a 1,153% increase in the number of reported park-related cases to rangers over the last five years — from 1,909 cases in 2015 to over 22,000 cases in 2020.

Cases related to social issues — such as mental health, drug addiction, homelessness, and tents in park — are a leading reason for rising case numbers, with the number of cases in this category rising by 40% alone in 2020. It is expected to continue to grow in 2021.

In 2020, rangers dedicated extensive resources towards managing and removing encampments, conducting encampment prevention, and providing individuals in need with referrals to shelters, housing, and support services. Issues with the prolonged Strathcona Park encampment, reaching a peak size of about 400 tents, was major drain on the resources of rangers.

There is also an ongoing concern with year-round encampments in Stanley Park, where 142 active and 64 abandoned camps were removed last year.

But as a tradeoff, rangers have been unable to monitor cleanliness and safety hazards, perform regular patrols, provide bylaw education and enforcement, and perform other responsibilities expected of them as park ambassadors.

Park Board staff admit without any additional labour capacity, there has been a reduced sense of safety at parks, reduced litter and needle pickup, reduced ability to respond to low-risk issues, reduced maintenance of natural and synthetic turf, and reduced trail maintenance and park conservation efforts.

In 2020, only 24% of all cases were addressed within the Park Board’s 72-hour response time target for rangers. A quarter (25%) of cases received no response at all, while 51% of cases that were attended did not meet the response time.

Moreover, there was also an increased general demand for outdoor public spaces throughout the pandemic.

vancouver park board ranger case volumes

Park Ranger Case Volumes, 2015-2020. (Vancouver Park Board)

vancouver park board ranger case volumes

Park Ranger Response Time (within 72 hours) Outcomes. (Vancouver Park Board)

“As funding and resources for the Park Ranger Program have not kept pace with expanding community needs and service requests, rising case volumes have overwhelmed the Ranger team,” reads a staff report.

“Urgent and high risk matters, such as managing encampments and addressing wildlife issues in parks, are prioritized over regular work, but this triaging process impacts response times and results in many lower risk service requests going unattended (such responding to amplified noise, smoking, and off-leash dog complaints).”

With ranger services in exceedingly high demand, the operating labour cost of the rangers saw a deficit of $2.2 million from 2015 to 2020. In 2021, the overspend forecast on ranger wages was $1.1 million.

Funding to cover this overspend is tapped from the Park Board’s operations and maintenance budget that covers aspects such as upkeep, cleanliness, and state of good repair. During Monday’s meeting, Park Board general manager Donnie Rosa said it is easier to adjust staffing levels in operations than reduce staffing in recreational programs, which would force the closure of some facilities.

As a step towards addressing this issue, commissioners approved adding $1.8 million in the annual base funding for rangers labour costs starting in 2022. This is up from the existing base labour funding of $1.3 million annually.

Not only would this stop the impact on operations, but it would increase ranger staffing levels equivalent to 16 new full-time positions — bringing the team’s size to 31 full-time positions overseeing 240 parks. This allows for a minimum of eight ranger shifts per day, covering 16 hours per day over seven days per week.

An effort would also be made to create specialized task teams to respond to unique urban issues, such as harm reduction and mental health needs scenarios.

“I don’t want it to continue that way. We want to fix this [with the funding]. Yes, bringing these [additional] rangers on will probably be not the last ask we’ll have, but it’ll shore things up and put us a little ahead, not just catch us up,” said Rosa.

But identifying the revenue sources of covering this funding increase will be determined at a later time. Park Board staff suggested the possibility of increases in user fees and other reallocations of the budget.

All of this is intended to the first phase of the changes to the rangers service model.

Although there was a unanimous agreement on providing rangers with more resources, a majority of commissioners shied away with following Park Board staff’s recommendation of creating new peace officer roles, which would effectively establish Park Board police officers. Peace officers have the same status as a police constable.

Currently, rangers can issue tickets for certain bylaw offences, but they are unable to demand identification if the individual does not comply. In contrast, a peace officer has the added authority to demand identification, and non-compliance can lead to detainment and arrest.

Green Party commissioner Camil Dumont made an amendment to scrap the action item on establishing peace officers. Instead, in a 5-2 vote, commissioners directed Park Board staff to explore the creation of new positions with enhanced bylaw enforcement authority as part of the regular full-time workforce.

“We need to get it right before we implement a change. We need to take the time, our staff need to explore the options so that when it comes to enforcement, we are doing it right and correctly. I know the public would like to feel safer, the public would like to know we are doing the job we’re saying we can do, but we need to get this right and not just rush through it without thinking about it carefully,” said Green Party commissioner Stuart Mackinnon.

“I would like to see a way to have our bylaws enforced, without having a new level of policing in our city. I think the general public would like that as well.”

NPA commissioners Tricia Barker and John Coupar voted against the amendment, bringing up concerns that there is an urgent need to take action on improving public safety.

“I do appreciate the sense that this amendment was put forward on, but I’m concerned about another delay with putting something forward. I think we’ve been delaying and delaying and delaying… we have a need to change the way we’re doing things in our parks, and I’m concerned if we’re waiting for another report to come back to figure out the next step on enhancing what the rangers can do, that concerns me,” said Barker.

“I can’t support this, just waiting for another report to come back. I think this is something that needed to be done yesterday. I would like to see the creation.”

Dumont and COPE councillor Gwen Giesbrecht suggested the increased resources for the rangers could potentially go a long way in addressing some of the issues that peace officers would tackle.

 

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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