Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

Press Release

January 26, 2010

Eileen Larrabee
Dan Keefe
518-486-1868

Commissioner Carol Ash Testimony Before Joint Fiscal Committees of the State Legislature on the FY 2010-11 State Budget

Senate Finance Chair Kruger and Assembly Ways & Means Chair Farrell, thank you for the opportunity to be with you today to discuss Governor Paterson's proposed budget for State Parks for Fiscal Year 2010-11. Thank you also Senator Serrano and Assemblyman Englebright, Chairs of the Tourism Committees, and Senator Thompson and Assemblyman Sweeney, Chairs of the Environmental Conservation Committees, as well as other committee members here today.

Last week Governor Paterson presented you with his FY2010-11 Executive Budget. The Governor forthrightly addressed the extreme fiscal challenges facing New York State – and the need to reduce spending in every area of the state budget in order to balance the state budget. Reducing the size of government by cutting state agency operating budgets is among the many actions necessitated. The Governor has proposed $5.5 billion in cuts, including, more than $1.0 billion in reductions to State agency operations spending, including $500 million in additional across-the-board agency cuts, and $250 million in negotiated workforce savings, among other actions.

All parts of the state budget are cut – State Parks is no exception. The Executive Budget includes $29 million in reductions to OPRHP's operating budget, requiring that we implement cuts in every area of the agency's programs and operations. These cuts will be managed by the Agency, using a substantial amount of intense, park-by-park review of our operations. We are currently in the process of developing a plan to implement these cuts. Last year, as a result of the fiscal crisis, service reductions at 100 State Parks and Historic Sites were required. In 2010 we will need to adopt further service reductions, as well as consider all available actions ranging from eliminating programs to the consideration of park closures.

Before I describe key elements of the proposed 2010-11 budget, here is some essential background on how we arrived at a place where park closures are even being discussed.

Background

As Commissioner, I am charged with overseeing one of our state's greatest treasures – the New York State park system. As New Yorkers we take great pride in the many iconic locations that comprise our system of 178 parks and 35 historic sites. From Bethpage and Jones Beach on Long Island to the Walkway Over the Hudson to Letchworth and Niagara Falls, our splendid system helps to define many communities throughout the state. And while, the role of parks is significant for countless reasons, three of them stand out.

First, and most obvious, New Yorkers look to state parks for affordable family fun, healthful recreation and a place of rest in these stressful times. Second, our parkland shelters countless species of plants and animals, provides for irreplaceable vistas and ecosystems, and provides incredible historic and cultural resources. And third, the state park system is 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 eight million visitors a year – attendance greater than that of Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Parks combined. Visitation remains strong throughout the system. In 2009, our state parks hosted nearly 56 million visitors, an increase of 1.9 million visitors over the previous year. And our cabins and campsites were booked more nights than any other year in our history.

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. Nearly half the economic activity is from visitors outside the immediate areas in which the parks are located.

OPRHP's Operating Budget

The Executive Budget proposes reductions totaling $29 million to the agency's 2010-11 operating budget, which is a 16 percent reduction over the current fiscal year. With these cuts, which are in addition to budget reduction actions taken in the current fiscal year, OPRHP's operating spending in the coming year will total $155 million.

The 2010-11 budget incorporates a permanent workforce reduction of 67 positions, resulting in a new agency-wide staffing level of 2,006 positions. This represents a cumulative reduction of 265 staff positions since 2008-09. In addition, we will continue to reduce our seasonal staff, which had already been cut by more than 650 positions during the 2009 operating season. Again, in order to reduce costs in the context of the fiscal crisis we eliminated the Green Thumb program in state parks and the agency's Conservation Corps Program.

In 2009 we also ended our agency's participation in the AmeriCorps program in the Hudson Valley due to the loss of state matching funds. All total, during 2010 we will have 1,100 fewer people to operate and maintain our facilities, guard the pools and beaches, clean bathrooms, and provide police and security. These staff reductions are spread throughout the entire agency.In 2009 we shortened seasons, days, and hours of operation, and reduced programming at 100 state parks and historic sites across the state, saving more than $5 million in operating costs. 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. Cleaning, groundskeeping and trail maintenance were reduced. Nature centers and historic sites offered fewer educational programs. Efforts were made to limit the cuts to the non-peak seasons or least busy days of the week. These actions will be carried through in the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Reductions implemented this past fall as part of the Deficit Reduction Plan will also be carried forward. These actions include the cancelation of existing heritage trails contracts, elimination of the military battleflag preservation project, and ongoing reductions in equipment replacement and other discretionary spending.

Turning to 2010-11, we will make every effort to reduce costs in all parts of the agency's budget – particularly in reducing administrative costs and eliminating all non-essential activities. However, given the extent of the fiscal crisis facing the state and the fact that 85 percent of our budget is spent directly on park operations, we have moved well beyond our ability to manage budget cuts through administrative savings and service reductions. Simply stated, we will no longer be able to continue to operate all of the facilities and programs we currently administer.

As we work to develop a plan to enact these reductions, it also is important to note that OPRHP generates approximately $85 million in revenue through user fees, concession contracts and other sources, which account for roughly 40 percent of our budget. When a park or historic site is closed or the hours or operations are reduced, the savings need to be offset by a loss of revenue.

Another ongoing challenge for our agency is the cancellation of the park police training academy. This marks the third consecutive year we have needed to cancel the academy due to the state fiscal crisis. 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 266 police officers. As we work with this new reality, there will be operational impacts on our system.

OPRHP's Capital Budget

Over the last three years, I have repeatedly stressed the significant capital needs of our state parks and historic sites. We still need to continue to invest capital funds to address the huge backlog of repair and rehabilitation projects our facilities require.

Your past support for State Parks revitalization projects means real dollars and real jobs in communities where work is hard to come by. Park repair and improvement projects that Governor Paterson and the Legislature authorized in the past two years are helping to sustain private construction contractors and sub-contractors, materials suppliers, and engineering and architectural firms hard hit by the recession. Indeed, I like to claim that we, by our very nature, are at the forefront of the ‘green jobs' movement.

Over the past two fiscal years, OPRHP has received $94.5 million of bonded capital appropriations through the State Parks Capital Initiative. OPRHP has aggressively and efficiently put this funding to work. As of today, we have committed 99.5 percent of these funds to capital projects in more than 100 state parks and historic sites across the state. Ninety-three percent of these funds have already been spent or are under contract with the work underway. The remaining funds will be committed before the end of the fiscal year.

Since 2007, OPRHP has let over 419 contracts for construction and consultant services. There have been 389 construction contractors hired, who in turn have hired 297 subcontractors to help rebuild our park infrastructure. Over the last three years more than 270 buildings have been rehabilitated, 133 miles of roads have been improved; and 19 miles of waterlines, 2 miles of sewer lines and 21 miles of electrical lines have been replaced. Countless other projects have been completed such as seawall replacements, rock slope stabilization, new playground equipment and trail construction. It is worth noting that despite our track record of spending funds in an efficient and effective manner, we received no federal stimulus funds.

However, numerous parks still 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, roads and bridges – are aging and deteriorating.

The Executive Budget proposes $32 million in state funding for capital rehabilitation and improvement projects in our state parks and historic sites, including $12 million available for capital construction projects from the State Parks Improvement Fund and $20 million in EPF funds.

Examples include:

  • Replacing failing and DOT flagged bridges in Harriman, Niagara Falls, and Buttermilk Falls State Parks;
  • Upgrading drinking water systems at Jones Beach and Taconic State Parks;
  • Renovating bathrooms at FDR, Wildwood and Letchworth State Parks; and
  • Rehabilitating the failed roof at the Roberto Clemente and replace the heavily-used gymnasium floor at Riverbank State Park.

These are not projects that we want to do, but projects that we have to do. Our ability to undertake them is entirely dependent on receiving the $20 million in EPF parks capital funds.

Conclusion

This will be among the most difficult years for State Parks since Niagara Falls State Park was founded 125 years ago, creating the first state park in the nation. However, we, like all areas of the budget, such as health care, schools and other agencies, need to respond to our state's fiscal realities. I will keep you informed as we move to develop and implement an agency plan for the coming fiscal year. As always, I am truly appreciative for the tremendous interest and support that members of the legislature have provided to our agency and I welcome any questions.