As City Council members zero in on their most pressing priorities to fund in Austin’s next budget, several are hoping to see security improvements across the city’s parks system.

In a nutshell

The issue of safety and upkeep across Austin’s thousands of acres of parkland has drawn some attention this summer during the ongoing review of the city's fiscal year 2023-24 spending plan.

“Many of us are hearing more and more complaints about security and maintenance in our parks,” Council Member Alison Alter said Aug. 8.

Parks and Recreation Department Director Kimberly McNeeley said it’s a problem the city’s aware of in the wake of incidents across public spaces in recent months.

“We have seen an uptick of bad decision-making and poor behaviors throughout the parks system this year,” she said.

One such situation prompted Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis, who represents Southwest Austin’s Council District 8, to ask for $100,000 to address vandalism in one of the area’s most popular recreational sites.

According to Ellis and District 8 staff, Circle C Metropolitan Park has been damaged multiple times in “mudding” incidents—vehicles illegally driving across soccer fields and tearing up the turf.

"That’s a tricky situation because [the parks department] partners with the Lonestar Soccer Club, and so part of their lease is that they’re trying to be good stewards of the park space that they’re able to utilize for their soccer programs," Ellis said Aug. 10. "When we have folks going outside of where the parking spaces are and deciding to tear up those soccer fields, it’s a situation that impacts a lot of different families and a lot of different kids that play soccer.”
Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis says vehicles have driven across Circle C fields, causing issues for park patrons and local soccer club programs. (Courtesy Ed Scruggs)
Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis said vehicles have driven across Circle C fields, causing issues for park patrons and local soccer club programs. (Courtesy Ed Scruggs)

District 8 Constituent Director Ed Scruggs, a longtime Southwest Austin resident, said the Circle C mudding has been an issue for years and has recently gotten worse. Cars can get around the park's older aluminum gate, he and Ellis said, and people have even moved boulders meant to act as barriers in order to drive across the lawn.

The targeted funding request would allow the parks department to install a new electronic gate and place more rocks around the fields to better control access. City staff estimated a new gate could cost around $80,000, while dozens of new and replacement boulders would cost less than $30,000.

Ellis is also seeking to hire 10 new temporary parks department maintenance employees to help with upkeep at parks, pools and recreation centers.

A closer look

While city officials are looking to address those issues in the near future, McNeeley outlined steps the parks department has already taken including:
  • Moving 10 new cameras across multiple different locations to track potential incidents
  • Working with the Austin Police Department to monitor parks and identify bad actors
  • Hiring security guards or bringing officers on for overtime work to manage places where people are violating city ordinances on a regular basis
  • Initiating some recommendations from a security assessment of the parks system, with future upgrades such as the addition of more electronic gates to roll out in phases—work that could cost between $1.7 million and $3 million citywide
In total, parks staff told council members that the city has spent about $525,000 on security and maintenance this fiscal year and could spend nearly $200,000 more through September. Expenses included the 10 new cameras and police overtime as well as new lighting and safety work around Rainey Street.

The city's upcoming budget has some money reserved for security, and McNeeley also said the parks department is using some savings from the current year on such work. She added that one of the city's nonprofit partners could help fund an overall assessment of the parks system in the near future to identify ways to make green spaces safer.

Looking ahead, Alter said Austin officials should set aside more money for growing parks maintenance and safety needs in line with the city's expanding parkland portfolio. After wrapping up the budget this summer, she added that she plans to bring an action item on parks maintenance to the full council soon.

“As we are more urban and we have less spaces, these parks are going to become that much more important, and they’re going to be that much more loved. And we have to make sure that they are maintained,” she said.