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Budget Cuts Leave American River Parkway Largely Unpatrolled

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, September 16, 2010
There's been a lot of focus on the deep impact of Sacramento County's budget cuts on the sheriff's department.  The number of deputies on patrol is down sharply since the recession began.  But that's not the only area where the county's financial troubles may have increased the risk to public safety.  As Capital Public Radio's Ben Adler reports, a 50 percent cut in the county's park ranger staff means large swaths of the American River Parkway are going unpatrolled.

If you want to know how popular the American River Parkway bike trail is, just ask the people who use it.

Carrillo: "It's like a second home, or maybe even sometimes a first home."

Like Alex Carrillo of Sacramento, who pauses a few moments during a bike ride to talk about how he uses the trail.

Carrillo: "Biking, hiking, running and then sight-seeing.  Pretty much everything."

Or Sacramento State student Nick Shoemaker, who hits the trail after class and runs home - to El Dorado Hills.

Shoemaker: "I can come out here and I can just get in my own world.  And I love the outdoors and this is a great place to experience the outdoors.  You have the river, which you can take as far as you like.  It's beautiful."

The Parkway has been called the "crown jewel" of Sacramento.  It's drawn praise from cyclist Lance Armstrong.  It's even been named one of the nation's top five urban bike paths by Men's Fitness magazine.  But in this recession, nothing is immune to the budget axe - including Sacramento's "crown jewel."



15 months ago, Sacramento County park ranger supervisor Kathleen Utley was part of a staff of 25.  Now, that staff has been cut in half.  And when you break that down to a typical day's patrol staffing, like this weekday morning:

Utley: "I have one ranger on the river in the entire American River Parkway today.  I am his backup.  He is mine.  So a lot of time, it's just me in the office listening to the radio to what he's being dispatched to, and then dropping everything, running out to my patrol car to back him up."

On this day, Utley stops along the trail every few minutes when she spots something wrong, like a trailer attached to a bike.

Utley: "We're gonna have a little chat with these folks.  It's illegal to have a cart on the Parkway…"

A few minutes later, she finds a woman drinking a beer.

Utley: "I'm gonna write you this citation and I am going to pour it out, okay?"
Unidentified Woman: "Okay."
Utley: "Because you know better, all right?"

She starts to pour out the remaining 10 beers in the 12-pack.  A man with the woman protests:

Unidentified Man: "Ma'am, please, we just recycled for this stuff.  Please don't dump my beer.  Please?"
Utley: "You're not supposed to have it here, and she knew better."
Unidentified Man: "I'll take off right now.  Please, ma'am -"
Utley: "Sir?  Sir?"
Unidentified Man: "Yes?"
Utley: "You don't want to argue with me.  You don't want to go to jail."
Unidentified Man: "No ma'am."
Utley: "Okay, don't do this."
Unidentified Man: "All my beer?!"
Utley: "Yeah, it's gonna get poured out."

But even while writing a ticket, Utley knows she's taking a risk.

Utley: "Every time you're going someplace or getting out of your vehicle, you're going, okay, I have to do this knowing there's the possibility that I may not be in the right area to respond.  And if I get tied up on something and another call comes in, there may not be anyone to answer that call."



That's not all the budget cuts have done to the ranger staff.  Most other county parks aren't being patrolled any more at all.  Meantime, maintenance is suffering too.  Jill Ritzman is deputy director with the county's regional parks department.

Ritzman: "People that come to our park system are probably going to start noticing unclean restrooms, litter, trash, weeds and things like that."

Ritzman says the county has no choice but to make these cuts.  Virtually every other program and service in the county is doing the same.  Meantime, local non-profits like the American River Parkway Foundation and Save the American River Association are trying to fill in the maintenance gaps - from picking weeds to painting park kiosks.  And Ritzman says a group of parks supporters is working with county officials to identify a stable source of funding for the parks - in other words, some form of tax measure.  Still, Ritzman knows many county residents already think they're taxed too much - especially in a recession.

Ritzman: "The community is going to see what's happening to our park system, and they'll either decide that they can't pay anymore and that the park system will be what it is, or they'll say no, I want to invest in my park system.  It helps with my property values, it's a quality of life initiative, and I want to pay something."

Parks supporters hope to get a measure on the ballot in 2012.

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