Sunday, February 07, 2010

nys parks in big trouble, be very afraid.

State Parks agency's dilemma is a symbol

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First published: Sunday, February 7, 2010

So which one will it be? Do we close Grafton State Park in Rensselaer County or Thacher up along Albany County's Helderberg escarpment?
Forget how popular both are, or how Grafton Lake in that park serves as the swimming hole for Troy's minority community, or how Thacher provides the great overlook of our region, cherished for generations as a place to show visiting relatives. Regardless, choices have to be made, because the governor has spoken. Spoken without analyzing the implications, but spoken nonetheless. He wants cuts, deep cuts. OK, we get it. We need cuts, but what do they mean to us?

Among the many irritating aspects of Gov. Paterson's behavior in crafting his proposed $134 billion state budget for 2010-11 is his lack of dialogue with we the people over why he is making certain budget cuts -- the rationale and the admitted consequences to state services and programs.

It is also apparent that he hasn't even involved his own state agencies in much of it. The latest round of cuts was dropped like a bomb on agencies about the time the proposed budget was made public. Out of the blue, agencies are left trying to divine how to meet an artibrary 11.5 percent further reduction across the board. Apparently not, as you might suspect, because of deteriorating revenues and our continued horrible economy, but rather out of pure political motivation by the governor. Just so he can announce at the end of the next fiscal year a $500 million or more surplus for some sort of gimmicky give-back to the taxpayers. Which returns us to Thacher versus Grafton and the infuriating dilemma facing the Office of State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

As has been widely noted already, Parks, along with the Department of Environmental Conservation, has taken an outsized hit in the proposed budget. For state parks, this is in addition to previous cuts. The total is a staggering 40 percent of their operating budget over the last three years. Already Parks has eliminated 1,100 permanent and seasonal workers, and instituted restrictions at more than 100 state parks and historic sites. There is no wiggle room left.

The governor has been told point blank that what he now proposes means half the state parks and historic places evenly spread over the 11 regions of the state will have to be closed. Yet I have been assured by those who should know that there is no list of closures. In other words, the governor is willing to make the cuts without any sense of how that will translate down here in the trenches.

It's going to translate badly. Now, there are certainly a number of options available, but we're not hearing anything like this from the governor. Options such as raising fees at state parks, perhaps dramatically. Right now, it costs a vehicle $7 to get into Grafton, and $6 into Thacher. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails are $10 a day at both venues. Raising fees certainly would not be popular, but if it would keep them open, it's worth looking at perhaps in combination with other measures.

My old friend Al Caccese is the executive director of Audubon New York. But from 1975 to 2003, he was on the state parks agency executive staff serving as counsel, executive deputy and even acting commissioner through three administration, both Republican and Democratic. He's mortified at what's happening at his old agency.

He says that in addition to this administration not revealing what parks and historic sites are in jeopardy, which the public has the right to know, there doesn't seem to be any thought given to the impact of those closures in terms of lost revenues and tourist dollars.

The park system generates $2 billion a year in economic activity, much of it in rural areas desperate for it. Yet strangling up-front operating expenses means many will have to be shut down. How dumb a way to save money is that?

DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis, when he recently testified before the Legislature on the proposed budget, made a similar point about facilities controlled by his agency. That they would make a profit if allowed to exist. We haven't heard yet how many DEC-run campgrounds and parks, vital to tourism around the state, will get nailed in Paterson's thoughtless budgeting process. But with the DEC actually looking at rationing gas for its police force and limiting telephone use, we should brace ourselves for the worst.

Caccese, who made a career of getting by with very little at Parks, says the governor could rescue his old agency and the DEC by perhaps funneling part of the proposed obesity tax to their operating budgets. After all, if the primary aim of that tax is a healthier New York, that's what parks and campgrounds provide. Caccese also proposes a tax on non-agricultural lawn care products to fund parks. Not a bad thought.

Gov. Paterson last week pronounced that he was politically a hardened warrior. I think he's confusing battered for hardened. The truth is it doesn't take any courage to announce all manner of draconian cuts to a budget that affects us all. The part that takes backbone is in facing the electorate with the specifics of what those cuts mean. Is it Grafton or Thacher?

Until the governor tells us, he's just dodging.

Contact Fred LeBrun at 454-5453 or by e-mail at

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