Archive for January 2012

Customer Service Agents with Guns and Badges

I often get asked about how we handle law enforcement at privately-operated public parks.  After all, most state-employed rangers have law enforcement credentials, and our employees don’t.

But most rangers have law enforcement credentials because of the rewards for having these, not because there is so much demand in most parks for law enforcement (we run a few urban parks that are an exception to this). Park employees who obtain law enforcement credentials get monetary rewards in terms of higher pay and access to more lucrative law enforcement pension plans.  Some also get psychological rewards from being able to carry a gun and a badge.  In most cases, though, we can easily work with local law enforcement to set up procedures to handle the few law enforcement situations that arise.

The other answer I give folks is that it is a bad idea to try to provide customer service with law enforcement officers.  In many cases, the approach to problems is different.  Can you imagine McDonald’s employees who constantly wrote you citations for illegal parking?

Here is an extreme example:

A Montara man walking two lapdogs off leash was hit with an electric-shock gun by a National Park Service ranger after allegedly giving a false name and trying to walk away, authorities said Monday.

The park ranger encountered Gary Hesterberg with his two small dogs Sunday afternoon at Rancho Corral de Tierra, which was recently incorporated into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, said Howard Levitt, a spokesman for the park service.

Hesterberg, who said he didn’t have identification with him, allegedly gave the ranger a false name, Levitt said.

The ranger, who wasn’t identified, asked Hesterberg to remain at the scene, Levitt said. He tried several times to leave, and finally the ranger “pursued him a little bit and she did deploy her” electric-shock weapon, Levitt said. “That did stop him.” …

Hesterberg, whose age was not available, was arrested on suspicion of failing to obey a lawful order, having dogs off-leash and knowingly providing false information, Levitt said.

Arresting and tasering people for off-leash dogs is absurd in the extreme.  We have this problem all the time with dogs – everyone thinks their own beloved dog deserves a special exception to the rules.  But we work hard to get compliance in a friendly way.  Some people ignore us, and when they do, we try to remember that its just a freaking off-leash dog, not a serial killer on the loose.  I could only imagine us calling out law enforcement if our employee was being ignored and the dog was being a particular nuisance or the person was known to have ignored the rule on repeated visits.

Case Study: Private vs. Public Park Operations

In private park management, the park continues to be owned by the public agency, and all decisions about the facilities, services, and character of that park remain in public hands.  The difference is in who actually does the cleaning and maintenance and operations of the park – high cost public agencies or more efficient private firms.

People love to hypothesize about the potential problems with private park operations as if there were no examples of such management to gather actual facts about performance.  But such examples do exist.  After years of such wild speculating (e.g. they will build a McDonalds in our park!) we finally took the state agency, legislators, and the media out to a pair of neighboring public parks in nature-loving, environmentally-sensitive Sedona — one publicly operated, and one operated by a private firm.

Here is the case study comparing the two

Broken Record

This is a generally fair discussion of private management of park operations in New Jersey.  But I am simply amazed at how this old trope keeps popping up every time

A chain restaurant in Wharton State Forest. A Ferris wheel at Liberty State Park. Weddings, flea markets, and corporate events taking over New Jersey’s historic sites and scenic lands.

That could be the future if the state goes forward with plans to privatize parts of its park system, some warn.

“Next thing you know, you have to pay more for everything and the public’s access is limited,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club of New Jersey. “You’ll be getting fee’d to death.”….

The problem, Tittel said, is “what happens down the road when private vendors take over park functions. They’re not professionals and don’t have the same level of caring for the parks,” he said. “Who’s screening them? Will valuables walk away?

“Then, there’s the loss of access,” he said. “If you can make more money on a Saturday afternoon renting out a park area, then the public doesn’t have access.”

The state could “bring in franchises that are detrimental to the theme of the park, like skeet-shooting, private golf courses, an amusement park, or a hotel catering hall,” Tittel said.

Readers will find answers to most of these questions both in the FAQ on this site as well as here.

But, in short, privately operated parks look just like the public ones, they are just operated less expensively.  None of our contracts allow us to add nutty new commercial facilities at will or limit access in any way.  The only differences are that we tend to actually charge less than publicly operated parks (because our costs are lower) and the facilities are in much better repair, because it is in our best interest to keep them nice (after all, Holiday Inn or McDonalds don’t make money by letting their facilities fall apart) and we don’t have to rely on the vagaries of the appropriations process get maintenance money.  Companies like ours are able to keep parks open and well-maintained using just the existing gate fees, without any additional taxpayer money — again because we are not saddled with the high costs and onerous work rules of a public agency.

To emphasize these points, we actually had a fact-finding trip of media, park officials, and legislators to two public parks in AZ, one publicly operated and one operated by a private company.  The case study from this trip is here.

Park PPP Conference Notes and Video

I have finally gotten the powerpoint slides and video from our November, 2011 national conference on Keeping Parks Open Using Public-Private Partnerships.  You can find them in the “training resources” tab above or at this 2011 Conference Recap link

Arizona Private Park Operations Case Study

Recently we held a series of fact-finding meetings for Arizona legislators and the executives of Arizona State Parks.  We held the meetings at a pair of public parks that are virtually adjacent to each other in Sedona, AZ.  Both parks are similar in size, facilities, and visitation.  The only difference is that one is operated by the state agency, and one is operated by Recreation Resource Management under concession agreement with the US Forest Service.

The key finding?  While the state-operated facility requires hundreds of thousands of dollars of appropriated money, above and beyond gate fees, to remain open, the privately-operated park actually generates positive cash flow for its agency.

See all the details in this short case study, in pdf format:  A Tale of Two Parks.

Since that meeting, Arizona legislators requested a specific proposal of what Arizona State Parks might be appropriate for private operations, and how much money the state might save.   The summary of our response is here:  Potential Test of Private Operations in Arizona State Parks.

Law Enforcement and Parks

As my company privately operates public parks, our employees are often taking over from state park rangers who have law enforcement credentials.  When we propose our services, we often get pushback on this issue — how are we going to live without all these law enforcement officers with arrest powers and guns and badges in the parks?

The answer I give is:  Things will be better.  It is an enormous mistake to handle customer service problems with a badge and gun and hard-ass attitude, but that is often what happens in parks.  You don’t see McDonald’s issuing citations to their customers, but state parks organizations do it all the time.

It turns out that the reason there are so many law enforcement officers in parks has nothing to do with demand — with very few exceptions, the parks we operate all require fractions of an FTE of law enforcement.  Maybe 20 hours a year per park.  But there are huge incentives for state workers to get a law enforcement license.  Beyond the psychic advantages of having a gun and badge, they typically qualify for a much richer law enforcement pension plan.   Park supervisors don’t care — the extra benefits don’t come out of their budgets.