POSTED ON JULY 4, 2012:
Have Lawnmower, Will Travel
Roaming city crews to pull weeds, fix problems
Drawing inspiration from a 1960s TV show called The Rat Patrol, Councilor Phil Lakin wants the city's new roaming cleanup crews to have an "Anything for Tulsa" attitude.
"Their job will be to drive each council district (from one end to another) at least two times per week, taking care of anything and everything that needs to be maintained, fixed or made better," Lakin wrote in an email.
Lakin successfully pushed for funding during recent budget discussions. The council approved $170,000 to support the new program over the next 12 months.
"Most of their work will be concentrated on arterial roadways, public parks, highway interchanges and other high-use areas," Lakin wrote.
Some details have yet to be worked out -- such as the exact start date for the program -- but the city will make use of prison labor, using the same pool of inmates who already pick up litter for the city.
The idea is for these inmates, nonviolent offenders set to be released from prison soon, to form two-man crews. Veteran security guards for the city will lead each team.
Tagging along for a day or two will be Lakin, who plans to get first-person insight into how the idea translates from a budget document to the streets of Tulsa.
Lakin's only concern so far has been the name the city has bestowed onto the groups: rapid-response teams.
"There is no 'response' orientation to these four teams; rather, they are to be proactive in everything that they do," Lakin wrote.
In his proposal, he dubbed the crews rat patrols, an homage to the similarly-named action TV series. The show featured the daring work of a fictional four-man team of Allied soldiers in World War II. Each week the soldiers would ride around in a couple of jeeps -- equipped with machine guns -- and figure out ways to survive in North Africa and stage raids on more numerous and better-equipped German soldiers.
For Lakin, the takeaway from the show -- as it relates to the city program, anyway -- was the ingenuity of a small group dealing with a plethora of problems, much as he expects the city's cleanup teams will find on their patrols.
"If they see a broken curb, they'll fix it or have it fixed. If they see some grass that needs to be cut, they'll cut it. If they come across litter, they'll pick it up. Illegal signs will be hauled away, broken traffic signs will be fixed, etc. If they can't fix it, because the job requires machinery or more labor, they'll report it and follow up to make sure it's been completed," Lakin wrote.
The phrase rat patrol might bring to mind another group: the Rat Pack, those 1960s-era celebrities who famously made Las Vegas their playground.
Less famously, Sin City has also hosted a team similar in concept to the new Tulsa cleanup crews since 1996. The Las Vegas teams have duties that include clearing sidewalks of junk, removing illegal signs and cleaning graffiti -- cleaning lots of graffiti.
"About half of their efforts are focused on graffiti abatement," said Jerry Walker, deputy director of operations and maintenance for Las Vegas.
Tulsa, however, currently has four city employees working on graffiti abatement, including two workers paid for by donations from community groups in downtown and the Kendall-Whittier neighborhoods.
So the rapid-response teams won't focus so much on graffiti, according to Lakin, instead referring graffiti markings to those groups.
Another difference between Las Vegas and Tulsa is the size of the Las Vegas effort. Walker said the 18 full-time maintenance workers who make up the program receive support from a $2 million budget.
Mark Hogan, the city's chief of security, said the Tulsa teams will have tools to get the dirty work done.
"They'll have a lawnmower and a weed eater, shovels, a chain saw," Hogan said. Now, inmate crews with the city mainly bag trash on a systematic schedule, he said.
Those crews are typically larger in size, and Hogan said having fewer inmates will make it easier to zip from project to project.
"There's a lot of things that happen during the day on our city streets," Hogan said.
He said that in his more than two decades with the city, not one inmate has ever walked away from a work crew.
"We're going to try to start as soon as possible," Hogan said.
Teams will track the number of jobs they handle and the type of work done, according to Lakin. The Las Vegas effort was faulted in 2009 by city auditors for not properly keeping records.
Lakin described the Tulsa teams as being "at the forefront of our beautification efforts."
"Ultimately, their work will lead to a more beautiful and presentable Tulsa," he wrote.
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