Parks Dept. says ‘no’ to horses

David Taber

Donors, advocates, rangers object

Despite having donors ready to contribute and a union calling for its preservation, the Boston Parks Department is set on disbanding its eight-horse mounted unit, which is based in Franklin Park, Boston Parks spokesperson Mary Hines told the Gazette this week.

Staffing levels are at an all-time low and “we need everybody in the field,” she told the Gazette.

After a private fund-raising effort saved the rangers’ mounted unit last year, the parks department agreed to “continue fund-raising efforts to ensure the long-term future” of the mounted unit in a document—obtained by the Gazette—outlining the agreement between the parks department and donors.

That document was signed by Boston parks Commissioner Antonia Pollak and Julie Crockford of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy—a JP-based parks advocacy organization that led the $140,000 fund-raising effort to save the mounted unit.

Hines told the Gazette that the signed agreement is not legally binding, and that the city is not interested in sustaining the mounted unit with private funding again this year. Her confirmation that the mounted unit was being disbanded came after Crockford told the Gazette that a May 7 meeting with parks officials left her with the impression some of the horses might be kept.

The Boston Park Rangers Association—a 2-year-old union representing the 12 rangers on staff—last week came out in opposition to eliminating the horses.

In a press statement, the union said it is “disappointed both by the proposal [to disband the unit] and the failure of the city to recognize the efforts of Boston’s citizens to pay for this highly visible and effective means of patrol.”

The horses were saved last year thanks to a group of private donors, organized by the ENC, that raised $140,000—$50,000 for the upkeep of the horses and $90,000 to hire seasonal park rangers to supplement the city’s 12-ranger full-time staff.

The proposed elimination of the unit—first reported in the Gazette last month—had some of those donors upset.

“It was our understanding that we would be working with the parks department to develop a plan for funding to keep the program alive and well, and that there was a commitment by the city to work to maintain it,” said JP resident Sam Sherwood, who donated to the rangers, along with JP resident Sarah Freeman.

The agreement was laid out in a document that also said, “The Emerald Necklace Conservancy and the Boston Parks Department have agreed to continue fundraising efforts to ensure the long-term future of the Park Ranger Program including the Mounted Unit in [Fiscal Year 2011] and beyond.”

That document is titled a “Memorandum of Agreement,” but is more accurately described as a “non-binding, good-faith agreement,” Hines told the Gazette.

It was vetted by the city legal department and signed by Crockford and Pollak, Hines said. But no talks about additional fund-raising took place, she said.

In an interview last week, prior to the May 7 meeting, Crockford expressed confusion about the entire episode. “Why did they agree last year to let the donors contribute?” she asked. “If they were willing one year, why not another year?”

Hines said the issue is deployment. With a dramatically scaled back parks staff—the department plans to eliminate 18 positions next year, but no rangers—it is a better use of time for rangers to be out in the field rather than taking care of the horses, she said.

“The parks department budgetary needs outweigh the needs of one unit. We need to save as many jobs as possible and create a better ranger deployment plan to address overall park needs. We continue to get complaints from park users and even some funders that the rangers are not visible in the eleven parks they serve daily,” she said in an e-mail to the Gazette.

While Hines noted that the private donors refused last year to fund full-time ranger salaries, Crockford pointed to the funders’ willingness to support seasonal staff last year as evidence that they would have been willing to negotiate on that point.

Al Hurd, secretary of the Park Rangers Association, said the Rangers have been cut back from a staff of over 30 in the 1990s. The horses give the rangers “mobility and the ability see out through heavily wooded areas” like Franklin Park and in crowded parks like the Public Garden and the Boston Common downtown.

They also help park users identify rangers. Sometimes park users seek them out and “it is a deterrent to be seen from a great distance,” Hurd said.

Locally, the mounted rangers have been a regular sight at Jamaica Pond Park. Christine Poff executive director of the Franklin Park Coalition previously told the Gazette she wishes the mounted rangers were deployed to Franklin Park more often.

Hurd also said that the union would be open to expanding volunteer programs to help with caring for the horses. “We have worked for a number of years with volunteer assistance in the stables,” with both youth interns and adult volunteers, he said.

“Not only might that be a sustainable way” to provide care for the horses, but, “It could provide for extra park ranger time in the field, and it would be an opportunity for people who love horses to gain access,” he said.

“I don’t understand all the explanations of why management is making this decision,” Hurd said.

Hurd said that the Park Rangers Association is still negotiating its first contract with the city.

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