By FRED LEBRUN COMMENTARY
First published: Sunday, March 7, 2010
Favorable signs are popping up that state government will find a way to keep open all those state parks and historic sites we were shocked to learn are scheduled to close because of New York's dreadful economic condition.
I stress that we can't celebrate yet. The threat to a number of places, including John Boyd Thacher State Park in Albany County, remains as real as dirt and rocks. But I'll wager that before negotiations over a new state budget are done, the parks will be saved. The question is, will that be soon enough?
The motivator is simple enough: the roar of the public, a din no politician dares to ignore. The minute word got out that the state was willing to close up to 90 parks and historic sites to save a few million bucks, the public said "no, you don't" in about as clear and loud a united voice as can be sent in a state not known for being united on much. Since the day of the announcement, individual legislators in districts across the state have been getting an earful. This is an issue that personally offends a broad spectrum of the population.
A Capitol rally last week to save the parks drew hundreds, including a number of legislators. More than 100,000 people have formed or joined "save the parks" Facebook groups. More have signed petitions or have gotten involved with groups that cropped up to save a particular park or historic site.
"Parks Day last week showed the tremendous support there is, no question," noted Sen. Jose Serrano, who chairs the cultural affairs, tourism, parks and recreation committee in his house. "Believe me, this gets legislators' attention, and gets them off their butts to take care of it. And support for finding a way is totally bipartisan. We have the will."
But how does all this good feeling for parks translate into something more tangible?
Assemblyman Steve Englebright, who chairs a similar committee in his chamber, said, "We're looking at short- and long-term actions necessary to keep our park system healthy. Of course we need to find new sources of revenue."
Among these are additional or enhanced public use fees. Serrano suggests tapping into federal stimulus funds. But increasing fees, or repackaging them to advance availability of funds, is unlikely to have any impact on the $15 million we're told the Office of State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation sees as absolutely bottom-line necessary to keep all the parks and historic sites open and functioning at current levels.
Here's why: The governor's proposed 2010-11 budget calls for $29 million in cuts from the state parks budget. In addition, it assumes that unnamed additional fees, such as Englebright is suggesting, will bring in $4 million. (How more money would come in when some parks are to be closed is somewhat mystifying.)
So it's clear that if our state parks and historic sites are going to be saved, we need to find a hefty source of funds not already committed to another worthy cause in the budget.
Which brings us to an unorthodox solution. Besides the $4 million anticipated in increased fees, the remaining $11 million needed already happens to be in the state parks capital budget. It should be made available for operating use.
Capital budgets and operating budgets usually have a firewall between them for good reason. But as Al Caccese, executive director of Audubon New York and for 28 years a top manager at Parks, points out, these are extraordinary times requiring like-minded responses. Al is also a lawyer who used to juggle numbers at Parks, so he knows.
"Absolutely we shouldn't be making a practice of this. This should be one-time only. What's sacrificed is replacing equipment, and maintenance, and so on."
It certainly seems logical that having funds available for all the hardware and equipment needed to run our state parks is senseless if we can't open and operate those parks. So there is a priority issue here. Long term, we need to look elsewhere. But that's tomorrow's headache.
That transfer of funds requires a sign-off by the Legislature and the governor.
We're told the Legislature seems favorably disposed.
"But we don't have a clue what the governor thinks," said Serrano. What has been lost in Governor Paterson's paralyzed tenure in office is how little is getting done in terms of passing a budget that's due in three weeks. We're the ones suffering ultimately. Serrano says no one from the executive branch is engaged on parks funding, or on a number of other budget items, for that matter.
And time is our enemy here. A decision on making the necessary funds available needs to happen soon. Parks already has started canceling reservations for stays at its facilities this summer. If this process drags on unresolved for long, the customer base will have been chased away.
"All we can do is have our houses in order on this, which we hope to do," said Serrano. "So that when the governor's office finally does engage, we can act quickly. That's our hope."
So, for those of us who love our state parks, that's more than we had last week.
Fred LeBrun can be reached at 454-5453 or by e-mail at email@example.com.