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St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster cuts park rangers and reduces hours at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve

ST. PETERSBURG — Boyd Hill Nature Preserve may be filled with boardwalks and trails that make it one of the city's most popular parks, but it's no sanctuary from budget cuts.

The park's five full-time ranger jobs will be slashed, replaced with three part-time positions and a supervisor post. The park's 245 acres of pine flat woods and willow marsh on the shores of Lake Maggiore also will have its hours of operation cut.

The city said weekday hours will be reduced by an hour each day starting Feb. 15. However, a flier posted at the park showed it reduced by two hours each day. Also, free classes taught by rangers will be eliminated or offered for a fee.

Park devotees call the cuts draconian, but Mayor Bill Foster said they were necessary and are the first of many to help close an estimated $14 million shortfall in next year's city budget. The cuts would save about $175,000 next year, city officials say.

"I'm not going to sit here and say people won't see it and feel it and people won't lose their jobs," Foster said. "It's going to be difficult. I can't sugarcoat it."

Still, city officials did try to put a positive spin on the news.

Clarence Scott, administrator of leisure and community services, and City Administrator Tish Elston said the public wouldn't notice any difference in the service provided at the park and no ranger would be out of work. The rangers have until Feb. 14 to decide what to do. As union members they have the option to "bump back" to a previous job.

If someone is occupying that job, then that person would move to his previous job, and so on. If, at the end of the line, a less senior employee is bumped and didn't have a prior job, then that person would "exit the company," Elston said.

Scott said they ran numerous scenarios and none led to someone losing a job.

But for Herman Trapmann, who has been a ranger for 26 years, it sure feels like he's losing a job. He said he and his co-workers learned Tuesday about the cuts and were given a choice to take another job with the city. Trapmann, 64, suffers from asthma. The job he was offered, he said, was the mowing crew.

"I wouldn't be able to do that," Trapmann said. So now he plans to retire. He'll get about $7,000 in severance for a job that now pays him about $30,000. He said he'll still be able to pay his bills and he won't lose his home. He turns 65 in April, when he can start collecting Social Security.

"We're all in a state of shock," he said. "I didn't think they'd dump all five. Where are they going to find the people with the knowledge and expertise?"

Rangers give tours of the park and teach classes about wildlife. But they also help protect the park, said Gabe Vargo, an associate professor in marine science at the University of South Florida who volunteers at Boyd Hill. A few years ago, he said, Trapmann helped save fossils of prehistoric humans from getting discarded. Another ranger, Gregory Coston, a botanist, makes sure contractors don't destroy the park's endangered species when they remove exotic plant life.

"What we're losing in the knowledge of the park I'm afraid can't be replaced," Vargo said. "I think this is very shortsighted and to the detriment of the park."

The backlash among community leaders was in full bloom by Wednesday. City Council members and Foster had received numerous e-mails criticizing the move. Many were sent by Lorraine Margeson and Corey Smolik, members of the Friends of the Boyd Hill Nature Preserve.

Smolik said he was disgusted by the changes. Margeson's message called the move the mark of a "newbie mayor."

Foster said he expected the flak.

"I was elected to make some really hard decisions," Foster said. "My goal is to keep a high level of service at the park, and I think that's what we've done."

Times staff writer Cristina Silva contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes.com or (727) 892-8037.

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster cuts park rangers and reduces hours at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve 02/03/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 3, 2010 11:24pm]
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