By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer
COVINGTON - A judge's ruling Monday clears the way for rangers to start patrolling Devou Park early next year to help curb vandalism and criminal activity, and to protect the park's value.
"That's great news," said Covington resident Greg Engelman, who serves as chairman of the Devou Park Advisory Committee. "It's something we've been looking for almost two years."
Kenton Circuit Judge Steven R. Jaeger ruled Monday that the William P. Devou Trust can pay up to half of the cost of employing two or three park rangers a year to patrol the hilly, 700-acre park. The city would be responsible for the rest.
The park ranger program is expected to cost about $39,000 in salary and benefits for each of the two rangers in the first year. That cost is expected to increase in future years with inflation and the possible addition of a third ranger, Covington City Solicitor Jay Fossett said.
The rangers would supplement Covington police, who have been limited in addressing park problems by budgetary, manpower and policy restraints, the city had argued. City officials had said they hoped to hire retired police officers for the 40-hour-per-week jobs. As with all city parks, Devou Park closes at night.
Although Covington police, city officials and trustees endorsed the hiring of park rangers, the issue required the court's approval, as it has jurisdiction over the trust. The trust was established by the Devou family after the Devous donated the land for the park.
The city's Devou Park Advisory Committee sought the ruling on the park ranger program nearly two years ago, after determining the city lacked the resources to prevent park vandalism and other criminal activity in the park.
"I think it's real positive for the city," Covington Mayor Butch Callery said of the judge's ruling. "It'll make the park a much safer place and more enticing for people to come to. We're very happy that the judge made that ruling."
Vandalism is the main reason that park rangers are needed, Covington officials and representatives of the trust argued in an Oct. 18 hearing in Kenton Circuit Court.
As evidence of the problem, city officials said portable toilets installed throughout the park have been destroyed. Copper plumbing from public restrooms has been stolen, and the intentional overflowing of toilets has prompted health concerns, they argued.
Among the other damaged structures and items: Devou Park's Concert Bowl, various exercise stations, and golf greens and golf carts.
Off-road vehicles also have been operated on park property, and the trustees cited numerous incidents of cars racing on park roads, underage drinking and general harassment of guests throughout the park.
That vandalism and criminal behavior has increased the park's operating costs, decreased funds for capital improvements, and it has prompted "a general unwillingness to spend funds towards new improvements that cannot be adequately maintained," Judge Jaeger wrote.
The vandalism and criminal behavior have instilled a negative attitude toward the park in many, the judge wrote, resulting in less usage by the public, which leads to even more vandalism and criminal activity in the park.
The first priority for the distribution of trust income must be the upkeep and maintenance of Devou Park's Memorial Building, with other capital improvements falling second, Judge Jaeger ruled. The rest of the trust income can be allocated to cover up to half of the annual costs of the park ranger program.
In the event that the trustee would decide a particular capital improvement would take precedence over the ranger program, the city would be required to cover the entire cost of the ranger program for that particular year, the judge ruled. The city would have the right to temporarily discontinue the ranger program, if officials can't fund the program in the city budget. However, Covington officials must give "reasonable notice," should they opt to temporarily discontinue the park ranger program.
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