Monday, November 19, 2007

State parks chief will press for more funds
By LAURA INCALCATERRATHE JOURNAL NEWS(Original Publication: November 18, 2007)
N.Y. park facts
Number: 178 parks; 35 historic sitesAnnual visitors: 55 millionSize: 325,000 acres of land and waterBuildings: 5,000Camp sites: 8,355Miles of trails: 1,350Cabins: 817Bridges: 640Dams: 106Beaches: 76Swimming pools: 53Boat launch sites: 40Golf courses: 29Marinas: 27Nature centers: 18Most popular: Niagara Reservation - 7.8 million visitors annually, about as many as the Grand Canyon and Yosemite combined.Others with more than 1 million visitors yearly:- Jones Beach (6 million)- Rockland Lake (1.9)- Riverbank, NYC (1.7)- Allegany (1.4)- Sunken Meadow (1.3)- Harriman (1.3)- Bear Mountain (1.1)Sources: state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; Parks and Trails New York. If this were your house, you'd probably try to sell it.
Instead, state Parks Commissioner Carol Ash is asking Gov. Eliot Spitzer and the Legislature to support increased funding so "critical" infrastructure improvements can be made to parks throughout New York.
Ash said she began a review of state park facilities in February, and had identified more than 750 "urgent critical" capital projects that will cost $600 million to $650 million to complete.
Among the problems she cited were outdated drinking water systems and sewer treatment plants, failing electrical systems, inactive landfills that had not been closed to state standards, and dams and bridges flagged as potential hazards.
Highlighting the problems during her appearance before representatives of the state Department of Budget Oct. 30, Ash said the problems also included nonworking bathrooms and showers, crumbling parking lots, and leaking roofs and swimming pools.
"Over the past 15 years, the state parks system expanded by 27 percent, including 29 new parks, and yet our capital budget, adjusted for inflation, has been reduced by half," Ash said. "The impact on the ground is obvious. We have underinvested in our state parks and historic sites, and they are showing it."
In 1992, there were 184 parks and historic sites, and the parks department's capital expenditures were $60 million, Ash said.
There are now 213 parks and historic sites, and 2007 capital spending will amount to $40 million. Ash said that when adjusted for inflation, today's capital budget bought 50 percent less than it did in 1992.
The need for significant funding increases for capital improvements is well known to Robin Dropkin, executive director of Parks and Trails New York, a citizens group of park advocates.
About a year ago, the organization issued a report on the state of New York's parks, highlighting some of the problems that Ash has focused on.
The organization visited 36 parks, including Bear Mountain, Harriman, Rockland Lake and Tallman Mountain, which are among the most visited in New York annually. The report cited an outright lack or an inadequate number of bathrooms, along with a lack of public information, including educational programs and basic interpretive signs, among the problems at the four parks.
Dropkin said time and use, coupled with a lack of infrastructure attention, were the main causes of the problems.
"The system is aging," Dropkin said. "A lot of the buildings were built in the 1930s ...There's only a certain amount of life to them."
Investing in the parks is important because they offer important value to the state, with 60 million people visiting annually, she said.
"That's a lot of people and a lot of quality of life enhancement," Dropkin said.
She said if the state thought it was important enough to make the investment to create the parks, it should think it important enough to preserve that investment by bringing them up to modern standards.
Spitzer and the Legislature provided some relief for 2007 by supporting funding to pay for 52 of the 250 jobs previously cut under the Pataki Administration.
Funding for capital projects was increased by $5 million, to $40 million, parks department spokeswoman Eileen Larrabee said Friday.
A spokesman for Sen. Thomas Morahan, R-New City, said Friday that the budget was put together by the governor, but that it made sense for legislators to be receptive to the idea of increased parks funding.
"If it helps the constituents in the senator's district, he's going to be responsive," the spokesman, Ron Levine, said.
Morahan would need to conduct a fact-finding review and receive input from various stakeholders before committing to any increased spending, Levine said.
Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, D-Greenburgh, said Friday that he visited state parks and was aware of their condition.
Ash needs to take action if she hopes to see a funding increase, he said.
"I'm assuming the commissioner will get to the governor and persuade the governor to increase funding," Brodsky said. "If he does so, I think there would be broad support for it."
One sign that Spitzer supports increased funding was seen when Judith Enck, whom he appointed deputy secretary for the environment, addressed the Budget Department prior to Ash.
Enck described increased infrastructure funding as "investing," and said it would aid the state's goals of revitalizing upstate communities and improving economic development through tourism and construction jobs.
Enck said state parks protected open space, especially in the rapidly developing Hudson Valley and on Long Island; provided recreational opportunities to lower-income residents, and encouraged people to become and stay physically active.

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