Friday, February 05, 2010

The Victoria Pool is a money maker for NYS Parks and should open Memorial Day in these rough times.

SARATOGA SPRINGS - It's going to be another difficult year for state parks.

Gov. David Paterson's proposed state budget calls for $29 million in spending cuts at New York's 35 historic sites and 135 state parks, including Moreau Lake State Park and Saratoga Spa State Park in Saratoga Springs.

The cuts mark a 16 percent reduction from the amount provided to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation in 2009, leaving the agency with about $155 million to spend this year.

Although nothing is final, parks officials say the budget-trimming will likely translate into smaller staffs, scattered park closings and less investment in infrastructure needs.

A list of which parks will be closed is still being drawn up, but parks officials say the cuts are deep enough to raise concerns that operations at Moreau Lake State Park and Saratoga Spa State Park would be diminished to the point that neither could operate safely and would have to be shut down.

"This is not something we want to do, but, purely and simply, if the money is not there to run the park properly, we won't do it," said Heather Mabee, a governor-appointed parks advocate who represents the Saratoga-Capital District region on the State Council of Parks.

Mabee and other parks advocates visited the Capitol Tuesday to make the case that parks are not just venues for recreation but also economic engines that draw visitors from outside the area.

Many lawmakers did not understand how deeply the state parks system has been cut in recent years, she said, noting the budget for the New York Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has been slashed nearly 40 percent since 2007.

Although Mabee said there is sympathy for the parks system's plight, there is also a feeling that all state spending is being slashed, and the parks department is no exception.

"We got some very positive responses, but we were also told that nobody's safe from being on the chopping block," said Mabee, who lives in Saratoga Springs. "Nobody said no to us. They all understand, but they also have their own priorities."

One lawmaker with whom Mabee and others spoke was state Sen. Roy McDonald, R-Saratoga.

Reached Wednesday, McDonald made no promises but said cutting funding for state parks is a "dangerous" proposition that could cost the state on the revenue side.

"I don't look at parks as entertainment; I look at them as economic development," said McDonald, who described himself as a park user who regularly kayaks on Moreau Lake.

McDonald also said failure to invest could lead to irreparable deterioration.

"We've got a tremendous amount of resources in these places, and you don't want to let these investments go to waste because they may never come back," he said.

Unless funding is restored, the spending cuts will put into question capital projects planned for Moreau Lake State Park and Saratoga Spa State Park, officials said.

Parks staff have designs to add 80 campground sites at Moreau Lake and recently finished a master plan that included a host of changes to Saratoga Spa State Park, including a fenced-in dog park, a disc golf course and improved parking lots.

Those projects will be put on hold until more capital funds are available, officials said.

Paterson's budget includes $32 million for capital projects statewide this year, but parks officials estimate there is a backlog of needs totaling more than $650 million at parks across New York.

Those needs include storm water management and sewer projects, building repairs and environmental management.

Unless the budget proposal is altered, moves made to save $5 million in operating costs in 2009 will also be continued this season, officials said.

Last year, parks staff closed Peerless Pool at Spa State Park on Tuesdays and trimmed the hours it and other swimming locations were open from nine hours a day to eight.

Further reductions in hours could be on the horizon, but no specifics have been released.

Prices for camping at Moreau, as at all other state campgrounds, jumped from $13 to $15 a night last year, while admission at the Victoria Pool in Saratoga rose from $3 to $4 for children and from $6 to $8 for adults.

The rates are expected to remain in place this summer but will not increase.

Park entrance fees, now set at $6, were the only fees not raised last year. They are not expected to rise this year.

Another likely byproduct of the cuts is that this will be the third successive year in which no park police officers will be trained or hired.

That will leave the force with 266 officers - 25 percent fewer than were employed in July 2008, and just half the number employed in 2003.

Dan Keefe, a spokesman for the state parks office, said the cuts could lead to the cancellation of some larger events held at state parks. He could not say, however, if they would have any impact on events at Saratoga Spa State Park, home of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

The cuts come as a growing number of residents flock to state parks as a low-cost, close-to-home entertainment venue.

Estimated attendance at state parks across New York hit nearly 56 million last year, a jump of nearly 2 million people from 2008, according to the parks office.

The number of visitors to Moreau Lake State Park and Saratoga Spa State Park contributed to the spike in activity.

Parks statistics show an estimated 1.48 million people visited Saratoga Spa State Park in 2009, while another 396,000 visited Moreau Lake, increases of 2 and 8 percent, respectively.

Peter Iskenderian, the manager at Moreau Lake, said reservations already made for next summer at the park's campgrounds and cabins lead him to believe attendance could increase for 2010, too, assuming the season isn't trimmed.

"I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that the other parks were cut last year, and that people came here instead," he said. "Plus, we've also got a beautiful park that people just want to enjoy."

Several other swimming outlets in the region, including the beaches at Cherry Plain State Park, Thompson's Lake State Park and Grafton Lakes State Park, were closed for two days each week last year as a result of budget cuts.

The beach at Moreau Lake, however, remained open seven days a week.

Friends groups - volunteers who step in to help parks staff make up funding shortfalls - are likely to play an increased role as the budget becomes more lean, Iskenderian and others said.

At Moreau, for example, private donations recently helped parks staff buy a trail groomer that will be used to smooth loops through the park for cross-county skiers and snowshoers.

James Kettlewell, a Saratoga Springs resident who heads the friends group at Saratoga Spa State Park, said volunteers will look to do more to help out there this year, too.

But volunteers can only do so much, he said, noting the extensive maintenance efforts involved with preserving the architecture in the park.

Many of the buildings, including the mineral water bathhouses, date back to the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration.

"Spa State Park has a much different character from many of the other state parks," Kettlewell said. "Really, it is home to some of the most important architecture in the state."

People who have come to enjoy the park's ambiance, as well as the recreation opportunities it affords, should realize that those assets also come at a cost, he said.

"Government-supported facilities require a certain amount of money that necessarily must come from the public," he said. "People love the park, but they don't want to hear the word taxes. We have to get the public to make the association and put the two together."

Posted in Local, Saratoga on Thursday, February 4, 2010 5:30 pm Updated: 5:45 pm. | Tags:

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