Private Security May Fill in for Park Rangers Due to Force Cuts

Fort Lauderdale explores hiring private security to beef up or maybe replace park ranger force


Aug. 4--Not long ago, park ranger Neal Shefferman was patroling during his usual night duty along Riverwalk in Fort Lauderdale. He noticed a homeless man asleep on a park bench, beer cans scattered at his feet. Shefferman, a 19-year ranger veteran, knew well the man's criminal history and tendency to fight.

'So I just very respectfully said, 'Sir, I would really appreciate it if you could wake up and move,' " said Shefferman. "Rather than fight me, he recognized me, knew me from seeing me around.

"I don't think someone who's a hired security guard would have handled it the same way."

Park rangers typically spend their time making others feel secure.

Now it's their own jobs they're trying to secure.

Fort Lauderdale city commissioners completed a request for a proposal this week to find a private security firm that could either beef up or possibly take over the decades-old park ranger program. The goal is to save the city money.

FORCE CUT IN '03

This isn't the first time the rangers have been threatened with layoffs. In 2003, amid the city's financial crisis, commissioners reduced the ranger workforce from 12 to six -- a relatively small staff to oversee Fort Lauderdale's nearly 70 parks.

For Shefferman, the transition was tough. "You couldn't always get [done] what you needed to," he said. "You go between three parks a shift and make sure people are happy and safe."

Park patron Matt Weiss spends much of his time in the expansive Holiday Park on Sunrise Boulevard.

He is the president of Fort Lauderdale Holiday Park Youth Baseball and Softball, which hosts about 700 players.

"We have a lot of drug dealing and prostitution [at Holiday Park]," he said. 'The rangers take a lot of pride and care in making sure our kids are safe. I wonder if a private guard would make those kinds of rounds and have [the rangers'] attitude."

According to the city's 2006-2007 budget, which will be approved in September, park rangers cost $740,948 for 10 full-time positions and five part-time. A private firm might be able to provide twice as many guards for at least $100,000 less, said Mayor Jim Naugle, stressing that the hunt for a security firm doesn't mean that the city will actually hire one.

COST-CUTTING?

"This is a means to explore our options and what the cost difference would be," he said. "From what I understand, a ranger makes $67,000 a year. If we can get someone to do the same job for less, we should."

Sanford Smith, a ranger for 16 years, says he makes less than $40,000. The Sunrise father says he always keeps an eye peeled for suspicious activity in Holiday Park.

"There's a personal investment," he said. "This is my home, too. I live in the area and I care."

Rangers also work with police and fire-rescue, using the department's dispatch system for emergencies. That relationship came in handy on Tuesday when a ranger found a young woman in the park who had apparently tried to kill herself by drinking two bottles of rubbing alcohol.

"The ranger went up to her to see how she was, how she was responding," said ranger supervisor Bryan Greene, 32. "We had rescue workers here immediately."

Greene's top pay, he said, is $43,000. "I don't know who's making a lot of money doing this job," he said. "People do it because they want to help."

Copyright (c) 2006, The Miami Herald Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.



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