Protests give lift to state parks
Support from lawmakers to stop closings gains; panel acts to end abuse
By DENNIS YUSKO, Staff writer
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First published: Thursday, March 11, 2010
SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Pressure from the public and advocacy groups is building support from lawmakers to keep state parks open, according to park leaders, who proposed Wednesday to toughen eligibility guidelines for disabled patrons to receive free or discounted passes to park facilities.
Gov. David Paterson's 2010-11 budget proposal calls for $29 million in cuts from the state parks budget, and the closing of several state parks and historic attractions, including John Boyd Thacher State Park in Voorheesville. Lobbying by the public and park groups is beginning to move lawmakers who were on the fence last month, said Chairwoman Heather Mabee of the Saratoga-Capital Region Parks Commission, which met Wednesday in Saratoga Spa State Park.
"I think state legislators are hearing us. But we still need every friend you know, every person you know, to advocate for our needs," Mabee said. Volunteer "friends" groups at the Capital Region's 20 parks and historic sights are still planning summer programs, she said.
At its meeting the commission also discussed a new state parks initiative that would change who is eligible for its Access Pass program, now used by about 34,000 state residents a year who claim disabilities. The pass entitles them to free or discounted admission to parks, cabins, campsites, golf courses, historic sites and recreational facilities operated by the state.
Under the program's new guidelines, "semi-ambulatory" park goers would be eliminated, and individuals receiving federal Social Security Disability, Supplemental Security Income or Railroad Retirement Board Disability will no longer be automatically eligible, State Parks Commissioner Carol Ash said. An estimated two-thirds of the 34,000 people who get the discount passes will no longer qualify, which will save the agency about $1 million a year, park officials said. Others will continue to be eligible. Individuals who lose eligibility can reapply.
The changes result from an internal review of the program that was launched after media reports showed that "an overwhelmingly disproportionate number" of Long Island Railroad retirees who received federal disability benefits were playing golf for free at state parks. Disabled rail retirees are among those who will no longer be automatically eligible for the Access Pass.
The $1 million in savings forecasted is already built into the 2010-11 fiscal year budget plan that calls for closing and reduced operations at dozens of state parks and historic sites. Specifics of the proposed rule change can be found at http://www.nysparks.com under the "Inside the Agency" heading. State Parks is accepting public comments on the plan until May 3, 2010. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org; by regular mail to OPRHP Counsel's Office, Empire State Plaza, Agency Building 1, Albany, NY 12238; or fax to 474-5106.
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