Monday, February 15, 2010

St. Valentine's Day Massacre puts Victoria Pool on hit list.

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State parks make hit lists

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First published: Sunday, February 14, 2010

Two lists of possible state park and historic site closures made necessary by Gov. David Paterson's proposed 2010-11 state budget finally have been prepared by senior staff at the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the governor's office.

What the lists tell us is painful and sure to enrage the public.

Say goodbye to the venerable John Boyd Thacher State Park in the Helderbergs, for example, as bizarre as that sounds. At this point, it will take extraordinary measures to save it. Once closed, who knows when it reopens?

The reason there are two lists relates to the 21-day amendments the governor made to his original budget proposal.

In response to a growing din of concern over park closures, the governor now proposes moving $5 million from the capital budget line in the Environmental Protection Fund to an operating funds line as a way to save some parks.

The problem with that maneuver is that it requires approval by the Legislature, which has been loath to endorse similar offloads in the past. It would place a double burden on the already savaged EPF to "rescue" parks by sacrificing some other worthy environmental need.

There are 11 park regions in the state. The following is the list, as of Friday afternoon, of parks and historic sites that will be closed or curtailed in the Saratoga-Capital Region if the Legislature does not approve the $5 million transfer, or restore funding from another source. They are:

Schuyler Mansion and Peebles Island State Park, in addition to Thacher in Albany County.

Cherry Plain, Grafton Lakes, Schodack Island, Hudson River Islands and Bennington Battlefield state parks and the Fort Crailo historic site, all in Rensselaer County.

Max V. Shaul and Minekill state parks and the Schoharie Crossing historic site, in Schoharie County.

Crown Point and John Brown Farm historic sites in Essex County.

Johnson Hall in Fulton County.

Victoria Pool would be closed at Saratoga Spa State Park, but the rest of the park would be unaffected.

If Legislature goes along with the governor, or plugs in more money, the following would be saved:

Cherry Plain, Grafton Lakes, Minekill, Peebles Island, Schuyler Mansion, Fort Crailo and the Victoria Pool.

So, the difference between the two lists is instructive as to what these great minds are thinking. Why restore Cherry Plain and Grafton, but not Thacher, for example? The expression "arbitrary and capricious" comes to mind, not to mention insensitive and ill-considered.

What is utterly dismaying is that these discussions are going on behind very closed doors with no public input. At what point do the decision makers plan to drop all this on us? When it's too late for the enormous park user-base to protest? Calls to the governor's office on Friday on the subject were not returned.

Those of us from this region are aware that the affected parks serve a range of clients, but with varying emphasis. There are class issues, for example. Grafton, Cherry Plain and Thacher serve minority communities more than does Saratoga Spa, not that I wish ill to any of them.

Sure, there's plenty of wilderness out in Schoharie County that can serve as an alternative to official state parks. But it is especially in impoverished areas such as Schoharie that state parks are needed engines of economic development. Parks attract tourists and that's found money. Why in the world are we killing off our flock of golden geese then?

What is dramatically missing in this process is any sense of criteria for closures. We deserve to know why and on what basis. And we deserve a thoughtful and complete analysis of what each closure really means in terms of actual savings, and true costs whether they're open or not.

Take Thacher Park. How do you "close" it? A major highway runs right through it. There's easy access on all sides. Those escarpment cliffs are dangerous; hardly a year goes by without serious injury there. Which means a squad of park police will have to be stationed there, at what cost, patrolling the area year-round to protect the state's liability interest and safeguard the public.

But what park police? Manny Vilar, a veteran park cop, is the president of the union that represents the senior officer corps at parks. He points out that repeated budget cuts and a pathetic pay scale have created a ludicrous situation. In 2007, the last year there was a park police academy for new recruits, 113 new cops were hired at a cost of $6 million. But from 2004 to 2007, 118 park police left for better paying police jobs from the village level on up to State Police. So, Parks paid $6 million for a net loss of five officers, because the agency doesn't have the funds to remain competitive. As a direct consequence, a skeleton crew of 263 officers and supervisors is responsible for safeguarding 55 million visitors a year at more than 100 parks and historic sites across the state.

So, who's going to protect and preserve Thacher Park until we can reopen it? As I said, this not a pretty picture, no matter how you focus it.

Reach LeBrun at 454-5453 or at

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