At a City Hall Parks and Recreation hearing yesterday, councilmembers grilled Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver on the preliminary 2016 executive budget, which they fear will leave city parks short on Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) officers.
Currently the Parks Department employs 241 unarmed PEP officers, who focus on quality of life offenses and administer first aid, among other duties. They patrol 1,700 public green spaces (the Conservancy-run parks, like Central Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park, employ a total of 101 of their own officers). Mayor de Blasio has allocated an additional $5 million for the PEP officers in the 2016 budget, which is enough to prevent the 80 new officers hired last year from being laid off.
"New Yorkers who are not fortunate enough to live next to a park which receives significant private contributions face the realities of our city's underinvestment in parks every day," said Parks Committee Chair, Councilmember Mark Levine, whose district includes Morningside Park and Riverside Park.
In response to the Council's critiques, Silver said he plans to develop a "hot spot" approach to shifts, deploying more officers to more populated parks in higher crime areas, but he declined to provide specifics on the plan. Major felony crime in NYC's largest parks declined by roughly 11 percent last year, with 369 major felonies in 31 of its biggest parks in 2014, compared with 415 in 2013, the Wall Street Journal reports.
As it now stands, every PEP officer, regardless of his or her tenure, makes $37,000 a year. When Bronx Councilmember Andrew Cohen asked Silver if this wage made it difficult for the department to retain officers, Silver admitted, "The answer is yes," adding that the officers are currently in collective bargaining, and he's "optimistic" that wages will increase soon.
Joe Puleo, president of Local 983, which represents the city's PEP Officers, said this afternoon that, "The job does not pay a lot, so people are out the door." He added, "When I go to these [mandatory] PEP Academy classes, I'll ask, 'How many people here are looking for something else?' And just about everyone raises their hand."
The Council is also asking for an extra $5.4 million in next year's budget for 200 new "playground associates," who keep an eye on dangerous playground disrepair. There are currently only 123 of them covering over 1,000 playgrounds in the city. The Mayor's preliminary capital budget only accounts for an additional 55.
In March, Comptroller Stringer published an investigation of playground safety, which found that between 2005 and 2014, 577 playground-related personal injury claims were filed against the city (think broken swings and slides and protruding nails), totaling over $20 million in settlements. Over the past decade, the number of annual claims has increased 53 percent.