Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

Press Release

March 05, 2007

FY 2007/08 Executive Budget Testimony By Acting OPRHP Commissioner Carol Ash Before The Joint Fiscal Committees of the State Legislature

Testimony Before
The Joint Fiscal Committees of the State Legislature

FY 2007/08 Executive Budget

New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

Acting Commissioner Carol Ash
March 5, 2007

Senate Finance Chair Johnson and Assembly Ways and Means Chair Farrell, thank you for the opportunity to be with you today to discuss Governor Spitzer's proposed budget for State Parks for 2007/08, the challenges facing our agency, and our plans to maintain our parks and historic sites as the best in the nation.

Thank you also Senator Marcellino, Chair of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, and Senator Rath and Assemblyman Morelle, Chairs of the Senate and Assembly Tourism committees, as well as other committee members here today, for providing me the opportunity to present the Governor's parks and historic preservation budget.

I am joined here this morning by Andy Beers, the new Executive Deputy Commissioner for the agency, and Pete Finn, the new Deputy Commissioner for Finance and Administration, as well as other members of our Executive Team.

As someone who has spent most of my career in parks and preservation, I was honored when Governor Spitzer asked me to be his State Parks commissioner. The State Park system is a magnificent one, encompassing over 325,000 acres with 176 parks and 35 historic sites. Our facilities host nearly 60 million visitors annually. As Executive Director of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission for the past seven years, I was responsible for a portion of the mission of State Parks, and now I'm looking forward to extending what I learned in the Palisades to the entire State.

The parks and historic site system operated by the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation is widely recognized as one of the best in the nation. Among the fifty states, we rank first in the number of operating facilities, first in operating revenues, and, when campgrounds operated by the DEC are included with ours, first in the total number of campsites. We are fifth in total acreage and third in total annual visitation. Attendance at Niagara Falls State Park is greater than that of Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Parks combined, and more than twice as people visit Jones Beach each year than visit Yellowstone. Niagara Falls is the oldest state park in the nation and Washington's Headquarters is the first publicly-owned state historic site. The Hugh L. Carey Empire State Games was the first amateur athletic competition of its kind and the Bethpage Black was the first publicly-owned golf course to host the U.S. Open Golf Championship.

However, New York State's Parks and Historic Sites face very significant challenges. A number of the parks have significant health and safety concerns that require attention, such as outdated water supply systems, wastewater treatment plants, electrical systems, and aging dams. In addition, much of our park buildings and infrastructure - our visitor centers, recreational facilities, cabins, campgrounds, swimming pools, nature centers, and historic buildings - are aging and deteriorating, diminishing the outdoor experience for the nearly 60 million people that come to our parks every year. And, in the last twelve years, the State Parks System has expanded by more than 25%, with 66,000 acres and 26 new parks. We need to develop new facilities to allow the public to fully enjoy these new parks.

While the challenges facing the State Parks Systems have been growing, our capital budget - expressed as either appropriations or as expenditures for projects - has not. In real terms, adjusted for inflation, State Parks has fewer capital dollars today than it had twelve years ago. Similarly, over this period the agency lost approximately 250 full-time staff positions that were devoted to maintaining and operating our parks and historic sites across the agency's 11 park regions.

Last fall, a major independent statewide parks advocacy group, Parks and Trails New York, issued a report entitled "Parks at a Turning Point: Restoring and Enhancing New York's State Park System." This report recognized New York's magnificent parks and historic sites, but also highlighted urgent capital and operations funding needs for the agency. The Parks and Trails report made several recommendations:

- First, the operating resources of the State Park system need to be strengthened in order to improve basic maintenance of facilities and the levels of public service to our patrons;

- Second, the agency has a significant capital projects backlog, the result of long-term under-funding of its capital program since the creation of the State Parks Infrastructure Fund (SPIF) in the early 1990s;

- Third, the agency needs to do more to protect environmental resources because parks should serve as models of sound environmental practices; - Fourth, the agency needs a comprehensive marketing strategy, both to address declining visitation trends in some areas and to enhance revenues; and

- Fifth, the agency should expand its outreach and make stronger connections with municipal park agencies, advocacy groups, "Friends" organizations and the non-profit community, to our mutual benefit.

I appreciate the important information that was compiled and presented in the Parks and Trails report - I must agree, we are "at a turning point."

Governor Spitzer's recommended Executive Budget for fiscal year 2007/08 recognizes these needs by allocating significant new resources to the agency.

The recommended FY 2007/08 budget for State Parks totals $278.6 million, including $211.7 million for State Operations, $15.4 million for Aid to Localities, and $51.5 million for Capital. On the Operating side, this represents a 5% increase ($10.7 million) over the adjusted amount available in FY 2006/07 and an 10% increase in General Fund support for State Parks. Key elements of the Governor's budget include:

- 52 additional staff positions, consisting of: 14 positions to staff new facilities and parks coming on line this coming year; 10 additional facility maintenance positions; 13 additional Park Police positions; 10 new environmental stewardship positions; and 5 five new positions in the Historic Preservation Field Services Bureau to administer the new Historic Homeowner Tax Credit Program.

- Increased funding and staffing to operate newly-acquired and developed parks, including Midway State Park, Two Rivers State Park, and the Indian Hills Golf Course in the Southern Tier; Sterling Forest, Fort Montgomery, and the Purple Heart Hall of Honor in the Hudson Valley; and the Springbrook Golf Course at Fair Haven Beach, the redeveloped camping areas at Robert Moses and Coles Creek state parks, and improvements along the Canalway Trail in Central New York and the Thousand Islands.

- Funding for costs associated with the second phase of the increase in the state's minimum wage and adjustments to fund the cost of converting long-term seasonal employees to annual salary basis, which was done last October.

- Funding for mandatory fixed costs associated with payroll requirements, commodity-based inflation, police salary adjustments, and new mandates.

- Continued support for increases in funding for agency Capital, through a $31.5 million appropriation for the State Parks Infrastructure Fund (SPIF).

In addition, the Governor's proposal to enhance the Environmental Protection Fund will generate significant new resources for the State Parks System. As you know, the Governor proposes to expand New York's existing bottle bill to include non-carbonated beverages, and to capture the unclaimed nickels on unredeemed containers. This will generate at least $25 million in additional Environmental Protection Fund revenue next year, and more than $100 million annually in future years. The enhanced Environmental Protection Fund will provide:

- $21.5 million for State Lands Stewardship and Access, an increase of $6.5 million over last year. These funds will address urgent capital needs at State Parks and the Department of Environmental Conservation. We are currently developing a list of State Parks capital projects that will require enactment of the enhanced EPF in order to receive funding this year.

- $25.2 million for municipal parks and historic preservation grants to local governments and non-profits, including an unprecedented $6.3 million for inner city and underserved areas. This represents a $4.8 million increase over last year. Municipal parks and non-profits are our partners in providing recreational opportunities to all New Yorkers and I encourage legislative support for this recommendation as well.

- The Governor's recommendation also includes $58 million for Open Space Acquisition (which we share with DEC); $23 million for Waterfront Revitalization; $28 million for Farmland Protection; $1.5 million for Biodiversity; $5 million for Invasive Species initiatives; $7.5 million for Zoos, Botanical Gardens and Aquariums grants; and $5 million for the Hudson River Park on the west side of Manhattan.

These are all programs and purposes allied with the mission of State Parks and I urge your support of Governor Spitzer's recommended allocations and the expanded bottle bill to finance them.

I'd like to close with a few thoughts on where State Parks as an agency is headed in the coming years.

We need to address the significant capital and maintenance backlog to make sure New York's Park System remains the finest in the nation. We also need to make our parks and historic sites examples of the best natural resource stewardship and green technology practices.

We should invest in better environmental and interpretive programming, drawing more visitors to our properties as we teach them about preservation, their history and the environment.

We need to determine why the number of parks visitors is not growing, and we then develop a sound marketing program for our parks and historic sites, making our facilities stronger community partners, enhancing local economies through tourism.

We must join forces with our affiliated municipal recreation departments and non-profit community. For too long, each of us has tried to go it alone in meeting the public's growing demand for recreation and community preservation.

We need to forge "connections" through green corridors, trailways, bike paths, waterways, and enlightened stewardship of private lands, to create integrated networks of protected lands for people and nature.

Admittedly, this is an ambitious vision. Governor Spitzer's Executive Budget for FY 2007/08 begins to advance us towards that vision. With your support, it is now up to us, to make it real. I greatly appreciate the Legislature's past support for State Parks, and I urge your support for Governor Spitzer's recommended budget for the coming year.

Thank you.