Sunday, March 21, 2010

A note of optimism for Parks in Times Union,3/21/10

Save the Victoria Pool Society is very grateful to everyone who is signing the on-line petition at put victoria pool under search petitions. We have been sending copies of hundreds of your signatures to NYS Parks Commissioner, Carol Ash, Governor David Patterson and State Senator, Roy McDonald and we will keep the pressure on our appointed and elected officials to open Victoria Pool this summer. Pool people are working in many ways pressuring our state officials on behalf of Victoria Pool. As we all know the magic of the victoria pool goes way beyond just a swimming pool. It is a state of mind.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------The new reality for our parks

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First published: Sunday, March 21, 2010

On its face, no single issue coming out of state budget preparations during these hard times more dramatically underscores the disconnect between those in charge of the political process and the overwhelming will of the people than the threat to our state parks system.
The threat, specifically, is to close many state parks and historic sites because of severe budget constraints. That such a thing could even be considered to close a paltry $15.3 million hole in a $134 billion budget is insane, incomprehensible. State parks remained open all through the Great Depression, and for good reason. Leaders at the time recognized far more wisely than those today what the needs of the people are when unemployment soars and things are tough. We need our parks.

As I've noted over the last couple of weeks, that message seems to have gotten through. If those in power didn't get it before, they do now. The good news is that the governor and the Legislature appear to be inclined to sort out an agreement for a short-term fix. While negotiations are still ahead, the likely heart of such a fix will be borrowing $11.3 million from the State Parks Infrastructure Fund, the park system's capital fund, and raising $4 million in new or increased fees.

Steve Englebright, head of the Assembly committee that oversees parks and recreation, has been spearheading efforts for such a fix, as has his Senate counterpart, Jose Serrano.

"I can't say the parks are saved just yet," says Englebright. "But let's just say there are brighter rays cutting through the fog than before. One of those rays is that the Office of Parks and Recreation has stopped canceling reservations for their facilities this summer." So it is fair to suggest that key state agency is anticipating good news.

Keeping our parks and historic sites open would give us all a sense of enormous relief, as if we really accomplished something. But a reality check suggests it's only the first hurdle in a long road. What about next year? Borrowing from the capital budget is probably a one-time deal. There has to be a long-term fix, too. Before we get to that, I would offer an observation on the great public clamor over closing parks and historic sites. I wasn't a bit surprised at how boiled the general population got over it, and how quickly folks went to Facebook and Friends Of groups to organize a huge resistance movement. And, sure, parks inspire enormous loyalty that the people in the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation would be smart to sustain beyond the immediate crisis.

But to some extent, I think the strident reaction was to lists of specific parks and historic sites that would be closed. Now, we all recognize that budgeting for $9 billion that isn't there means other services and programs will have to be cut or curtailed. But it's quite another thing to be told Thacher Park is closing.

What I'm getting at is that, so far, the Paterson administration has been skillful in keeping proposed cuts by other agencies pretty much in the abstract and away from the potential deep irritation of the people who will be affected.

For example, in the latest of a long line of cuts demanded by the governor's office, the Department of Environmental Conservation is struggling to come up with $32 million in nonpersonnel items to eliminate. Vehicles and equipment, gas for vehicles, phone use, entire programs and functions truncated or eliminated. But who's left in the dark while these decisions are being made? You and me.

It's hard to imagine sportsmen, for instance, won't get clobbered by the bean counters. Will we still have our fish hatcheries? What about the Conservation Fund? They'll screw with that for sure. Will DEC enforcement of various kinds be so hamstrung by budget cuts that polluters and poachers will essentially become self-policing, turning the entire concept of enforcement on its head?

Save that outrage. You're going to need it when the details about one state agency after another leak out in terms of what the cuts mean down here in the streets. What will really light your candle is that those details are likely to become public only shortly before legislators finalize a budget. There won't be nearly enough time to work up orchestrated resistence like we did for park closures.

But back to averting those park closures and the need for a long-term plan.

Dan Biederman is a consultant who specializes in turning around troubled urban parks, like Bryant Park in New York City. He finds creative ways to finance and operate these parks, and make them assets. He has ideas about what needs to change in our state parks world to find a viable alternative to depending exclusively on taxpayer funding and fees. He says we need new revenue sources.

"I know how to create public/private partnerships," Biederman says. He looks especially for new income from a list of categories: enhanced concessions, sponsorships, event revenue and licensing.

I am not promoting Biederman or his concepts, but merely pointing to a larger world than the one we know and are used to for our state parks.

That's the new reality we can't avoid with a quick fix.

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

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