December 09, 2009
Thank you Assemblyman Englebright, Assemblywoman Paulin, members of the Tourism Committee, and members of the Oversight Committee for inviting me here today to discuss our New York State park system at a critical moment in its history. It is a critical moment because while State Parks represents one quarter of one-percent of the state budget, our agency has endured five rounds of budget cuts, totaling 25 percent of our budget, and our workforce has been reduced by nearly 1,000 people. It's critical because 85 percent of our budget goes directly to park operations, so park operations are most directed affected by the cuts.
As Commissioner of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, I am charged with overseeing one of our state's greatest treasures - the 125-year-old New York State park system. Since the 1885 creation of Niagara Reservation State Park - the oldest state park in the nation - the system has grown to 214 state Parks and Historic Sites encompassing 330,000 acres of protected lands and waters. Widely regarded as the finest in the nation, our New York State park system attracts more than 55 million visitors annually. Even with the rainy spring and early summer, and the service reductions instituted to reduce our budget, our attendance grew slightly this year. Overall attendance for the first ten months of the year is 900,000 visitors more than the same period last year. We expect this trend to continue next year - for example advance reservations for the 2010 camping season are on pace for another record-setting year.
For one-quarter of one percent of the entire state budget, our state park system provides a priceless benefit for residents and visitors alike. New Yorkers look to State Parks for rest, relaxation and healthful recreation in these stressful times. Our parkland shelters countless species of plants and animals, irreplaceable vistas and ecosystems, and incredible recreational, historic and cultural resources. This one-quarter of one percent of the state budget is also a sound and pragmatic economic investment, contributing to the vitality and quality of life of local communities and directly supporting New York's tourism industry. For example, Niagara Falls State Park attracts nearly 8 million visitors a year - attendance that is in fact greater than that of Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Parks combined.
A recent study by the University of Massachusetts' Political Economy Research Institute documented that New York's state park system generates $1.9 billion in economic activity every year - five times the agency's total annual budget - and accounts for 20,000 private sector jobs. Nearly half the economic activity is from visitors outside the immediate areas in which the parks are located.
A dramatic example of the profound impact that parks have on the economy is our newest state park, the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park, which opened this October in Poughkeepsie. An abandoned railroad bridge for several decades, the Walkway has been transformed into a one-and-a-quarter mile linear park with commanding views of the Hudson Valley. Since opening in October, the Walkway has attracted more than 400,000 visitors - exceeding projections of anticipated annual attendance and the crowds just keep coming. To illustrate how parks contribute to the economic well-being of a community, allow me to offer this anecdote. Mahoney's Irish Pub is located near the Poughkeepsie train station. The owner has reported to us that he saw a roughly 60 percent jump in business in October. He had to bring in more workers to serve the crowds coming in for lunch and dinner on the weekends. A large number of these new customers were day-trippers from New Jersey and Connecticut who arrive by train. During construction, the Walkway generated hundreds of engineering, construction and manufacturing jobs for New York firms, and now that it's open to the public, spending by tourists and visitors will surely create many permanent jobs in the Hudson Valley.
Economic success stories like this have taken place in communities all across the state. Over the past two years, thanks to the support of Governor Paterson and the Legislature, OPRHP has invested $200 million to revitalize the parks, which are suffering from a $700 million backlog of capital rehabilitation needs. These projects are providing real dollars and real jobs in communities where work can be hard to come by. These parks projects are all the more important to private business in this economic downturn. This effort is helping to sustain the individual, private construction contractors and sub-contractors, materials suppliers and engineering and architectural firms hard hit by the recession. Indeed, we at State Parks like to claim that we, by our very nature, are at the forefront of the 'green jobs' movement. In addition, park capital investments strengthen local economies over the long haul by generating tourism dollars, and supporting vibrant communities that are essential to making New York a great place to live, work, and raise families.
OPRHP has aggressively and efficiently put this funding to work. The agency has completed capital construction projects at more than 100 State Parks and Historic Sites across the state. The agency has fully obligated the capital funds provided to the agency in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 state budgets. The downside is we have no additional funds authorized to maintain momentum on the State Parks Capital Initiative in 2010. It is worth noting that despite our track record of spending funds in an efficient and effective manner, State Parks were excluded from the federal stimulus plan.
Much more remains to be done to provide safe and enjoyable park facilities. Many parks have significant health and safety concerns that require attention, such as outdated water supply systems, aging wastewater treatment plants, and antiquated electrical systems. Many park facilities - visitor centers, recreational facilities, cabins, campgrounds, swimming pools, nature centers, roads and parking areas - are aging and deteriorating.
The fact is, with these capital needs, along with the state's fiscal condition, the New York State Park System is at a critical crossroads. OPRHP is a "direct operations" agency. Eighty-five percent of the agency's operating budget goes to pay the direct costs - including permanent and seasonal staff, equipment, utilities, and similar expenses - incurred in operating New York's 214 state parks and historic sites. Yet over the past two years, OPRHP has absorbed five rounds of budget cuts totaling 25 percent of the agency's operating budget. As a result of budget cuts, the state's hiring freeze, regular attrition and the voluntary severance program, the agency's workforce has been reduced by 1,000 permanent and seasonal workers. That means fewer people to guard the beaches and pools, clean the bathrooms and maintain the grounds. Budgets for equipment, supplies, and service contracts have been deeply cut.
As a result, our agency implemented service reductions at 100 state parks and historic sites this year. While we've managed to avoid closing any parks altogether, we've shortened seasons, days, and hours of operation, and reduced programming. That has meant many beaches and pools were open for swimming on fewer days of the week or fewer hours of the day. Campgrounds opened later and closed earlier. And nature centers and historic sites offered fewer educational programs.
Our Park Police have been particularly challenged by a significant reduction in force, stemming from these budget cuts. The annual police training academy was cancelled in both 2008-09 and 2009-10 due to the state's fiscal situation. As a result, Park Police staffing in the parks next summer will be down 25 percent - or 70 uniformed officers - from July 2008 levels. From a high of more than 500 full and part-time officers in 2003, we are now at a level of 268 police officers. As we work with this new reality, it is clear there will be operational impacts on our system.
The 2009 Summer Empire State Games, which had been scheduled in the Hudson River Valley, were also cancelled due to budget cuts stemming from New York State's unprecedented fiscal crisis. Plans are underway to restore the Summer Games in Buffalo for July, 2010 and Rochester in 2011. Funding will come from a mix of state support, modest increases to athlete participation fees, and a newly announced private fundraising initiative.
Clearly, the State Parks budget has been stretched to the breaking point. If forced to absorb additional budget cuts next year, OPHRP will have no option but to begin closing state parks and historic sites. Closing parks would be a terrible step that would have a negative impact on New York's economy and quality of life:
We expect to continue service reductions similar to those implemented this year in the upcoming 2010 operating season. However, we believe it is critical to avoid any further cuts to OPRHP's operating budget. The agency has already absorbed a 25 percent budget cut. Further cuts will result in closing State Parks and Historic Sites - something that New York has never done before in the 125-year history of the State Parks System.
We also strongly recommend a third year of the State Parks Capital Initiative. Following the practice of the last two years, the Capital Initiative can be advanced through a combination of bonded funds, other sources of state, federal and private support, and state parks revenues (the State Parks Infrastructure Fund) - meaning that no state General Fund money is needed for the capital program. This investment will enable OPRHP to address a number of pressing health and safety concerns in the State Parks and Historic Sites. It will also directly support economic development by strengthening recreational and cultural tourism, which is one of the state's largest industries, and creating local construction jobs in communities across the state.
New York is fortunate for the Assembly's past partnership in protecting our abundance of scenic beauty, recreational opportunity and historic significance through our world class state parks system. We are hopeful the Assembly will continue to partner with us to assure the safe operation and stewardship of New York's 214 State Parks and Historic Sites - and to avoid further funding cuts that would result in closing parks for the first time ever in the park system's 125-year history. Your leadership will sustain the State Park System's unique contributions to the well-being of our citizens and economically vibrant local communities across New York State.