The City of Portland is moving to break the longtime hold a business group has on providing security patrols in downtown parks, setting up a potential struggle over public safety and big-money municipal contracts.

On one side is the Portland Business Alliance, the city's biggest corporate interest group, which for more than 20 years has run its own downtown security service, Clean & Safe. It faces losing nearly $530,000 a year to patrol 11 city parks.

On the other is City Commissioner Nick Fish, who says the city will hire three park rangers who can do a better job than the business alliance's security teams. "We asked, 'Can a different approach give us stronger security and better accountability?'" Fish says. "My team thought there was a better way to spend our limited resources."

Fish's move carries political risks. The PBA represents some of the biggest money interests in the city, and its $6.8 million-a-year Clean & Safe program is its most visible work downtown.

The alliance has already succeeded in delaying Fish's plans while it's lobbied to keep the current system in place. The business group has raised concerns that safety downtown will decline if its crews are cut out of patrolling parks.

PBA spokeswoman Megan Doern says her group pushed back against Fish's plan because it doesn't believe the park rangers can provide the same degree of security offered by Clean & Safe. 

"Downtown's a very delicate ecosystem," Doern says. "We want to be sure the parks are safe for everybody to use them."

The move is the city's biggest in years to shake up the lucrative private security business downtown. Fish will need at least two other City Council votes to approve the security contract.

The PBA's Clean & Safe program patrols 213 downtown blocks, a program that has grown since it started in 1987. 

About $4.5 million a year comes from improvement district fees paid by downtown businesses. TriMet pays nearly $1.3 million for patrols of the Transit Mall, and the city pays $990,410 for security in Smart Park garages and city parks, such as Tom McCall Waterfront Park and Lownsdale and Chapman squares.

Fish says the $530,000 flowing from the parks budget to Clean & Safe patrols has gone unquestioned since it started in 1996.

"We've heard from downtown residents that they'd like to have a more regular presence in the parks," he says. "I didn't come to this because I was unhappy with PBA or Clean & Safe, but we think this has advantages."

Under Fish's plan, the Parks Bureau would assign its three rangers, plus seasonal staff, to patrol 16 downtown parks, including five parks not in Clean & Safe's territory. The city would then hire an outside security firm, at an estimated cost of $175,000 a year, to work nights.

In all, the Parks Bureau estimates, the cost of Fish's plan would run about the same as the city's current spending to keep the alliance's Clean & Safe patrols working the parks.

Some downtown residents say they are ready for a change in security in the South Park Blocks.

Gunnar Sacher, who lives in Eliot Tower, a luxury condominium complex at 1221 SW 10th Ave., was among several residents who complained to Fish last year. 

"Drug users are a common occurrence, and so are people selling the product," he says. "It's pretty obvious."

Fish aide Jim Blackwood says the PBA's pushback prompted the Parks Bureau to delay the proposal and consult the Police Bureau to ensure the plan would work. He says the delay worried private security companies that wanted to compete for the contract to provide nighttime security in the parks.

"I met with two security firms that were very concerned it had been pulled because of pressure from the PBA," he says.

PBA spokeswoman Doern says her organization doesn't think "this is how security should be done," reiterating that city rangers combined with private patrols won't provide the same degree of security as Clean & Safe.

The alliance declined to bid for the security contract in Fish's original proposal to supplement ranger patrols. Doern doesn't know what the group will do with the revived plan.

“If we don’t feel that it’s going to provide adequate security in the parks,” she says, “then the PBA isn’t going to bid on it.”