July 17, 2020
By Crystal Lewis
For Joe Puleo, the president of District Council 37’s Local 983, the budget decision to cut 50 Urban Park Rangers was personal.
“I came from that title,” said the union leader, who started on the job in 1992 and was promoted to Associate Urban Park Ranger in 2005. “These are young people in their 20s, they were really happy in their jobs and now it’s shattered.”
Last year, the city hired 50 provisional Urban Park Rangers through the City Council’s Play Fair initiative, which was adopted from a campaign urging city parks and forests to be maintained and improved.
But thanks to the city’s $9-billion budget deficit, the 50 Park Rangers were not hired for another year, which would have cost $10 million.
“We are in extraordinary times, and unfortunately some of those we were able to hire in Fiscal Year 2020 will not return,” Parks Department spokeswoman Crystal Howard said.
Former Parks Department Commissioner Adrian Benepe, who headed the agency from 2002 to 2012, told news outlet The City that the cuts were “tragic.”
In a letter to the Council, Mr. Puleo urged that the funding be restored.
Small Change Saved
“Compared to what’s in the city budget, that’s like what’s between your couch cushions,” he said during a phone interview.
The cuts left just 45 Urban Park Rangers. The losses were especially critical since many New Yorkers with fewer options for recreation are visiting city parks and beaches.
“They’re not going to concerts, they’re not going to the theater,” Mr. Puleo said. “More resources should be going to parks to reflect that.”
The Play Fair Coalition, comprising 275 organizations, pointed out in an online petition these were essential workers during the pandemic, “putting their health on the line every day during this crisis to keep our parks clean and safe.”
The executive director of one of the member organizations, New Yorkers for Parks’ Adam Ganser, argued that less than one percent of the city’s budget went to its parks, calling them “systematically underfunded.”
Mr. Puleo believed that the Rangers, who can issue tickets to those who violate park rules, were stereotyped as pseudo-cops and were targeted for cuts because of the movement to defund the police.
“They omitted this group because they wear a uniform. It’s ludicrous, and it’s troubling,” he said.
He pointed out that the bulk of Park Rangers’ work was educational—they often teach children about wildlife. That role was especially important because many summer youth programs across the city were slashed, he noted, and because recently the Park Rangers helped teach children how to slow the spread of coronavirus.
“They were giving out masks and explaining the importance of social-distancing,” he said.