Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

Press Release

April 08, 2010

Eileen Larrabee
Dan Keefe

Commissioner Carol Ash's Remarks Before NYS Senate Tourism and Parks Committee

Thank you Senator Serrano and members of the Tourism and Parks Committee for inviting me here to discuss the challenges facing the New York state park system. Let me start by addressing the issue on everyone's mind - park closings.

In response to the fiscal crisis facing New York State, the Governor's Executive Budget proposal includes reductions to every part of state government. Painful and difficult choices must be made to address New York's $9 billion deficit.

State Parks are no exception. The Executive Budget proposes to reduce OPRHP's general fund support by $29 million, which equates to a 16 percent reduction to the agency's operating budget. This reduction is on top of recurring cuts that have already been implemented over the past two years.

State Parks has identified a number of steps - such as continued attrition of permanent staff, across the board reductions to non-personal service and seasonal staffing budgets, eliminating all vehicle purchases for the second year, and canceling our Park Police Academy for the third straight year - that total $18 million in savings.

However, 85 percent of the agency's operating budget is spent on the costs of operating our 213 State Parks and Historic Sites. In order to achieve the final $11 million of required savings, we have no choice but to cut parks operations.

In February, we released a list of 55 State Parks and Historic Sites that have been identified for closing, along with cutbacks at an additional 24 parks. These actions would generate net savings of $6 million. In addition, the Governor proposed that OPRHP receive $5 million from the Environmental Protection Fund for park operating expenses. Without this funding, the agency would need to close an additional 33 State Parks and Sites. In total, 88 parks and sites are at risk of closing, generating a total of $11 million in operating savings. I have distributed the list of park closings and service reductions.

When the proposal to close state parks and historic sites was announced, the Governor expressed a willingness to have a dialogue about that plan, along with the many other difficult decisions to close the budget deficit.

In their budget resolutions, both the Senate and Assembly proposed restoring $11 million to OPRHP's operating budget to avoid the need for park closures. I am grateful for this sign of support. However, the Governor has insisted that any plan to restore funding to keep our parks and historic sites open this year must fit within an overall strategy to address our budget crisis and close a $9 billion budget deficit.

Given that there is no final state budget at this time, our agency has neither funding nor authorization to open the 55 State Parks and Historic Sites that were identified for closing. Therefore, we have canceled camping reservations at those parks that will be closed, and we have offered to refund deposits to those who have made reservations at parks that will see significant service reductions, such as pool and beach closures. Practically speaking, most of the parks and historic site slated for closure were already shut down over the winter, and they will remain that way for now. Lifeguards and seasonal workers aren't being hired; picnic tables will stay in storage; bathrooms will stay closed.

We are working with our regional directors and site managers to refine plans for each park and historic site, including taking steps to ensure people don't get hurt in dangerous areas of closed parks. We will be continually reassessing these steps on a park-by-park basis.

Apart from operating costs, another critical element to park access is park infrastructure. The Executive Budget proposes that OPRHP receive $15 million from the Environmental Protection Fund "stewardship" category to make basic repairs. These are not projects that we want to do, but projects that we have to do. They are necessary investments to address health and safety issues and keep our parks available and accessible to the public.

Examples include: Designing a replacement for the failing Goat Island Bridge at Niagara Falls State Park; 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 replacing the heavily-used gymnasium floor at Riverbank State Park.

The Senate budget resolution includes $15 million in capital funding to address these critical capital investment needs. However, the Assembly resolution zeroed out OPRHP's capital funding. It is essential that State Parks capital funds be included in the final budget agreement.

It's important to note that we also need more federal assistance to address the $650 million capital backlog facing the State Parks System. While our great National Parks received federal stimulus funding for capital projects, none of the state park systems received stimulus funding. For New York State, that's a particular problem. Because the National Park movement began west and travelled east, New York State has few National Parks. In addition, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the main source of federal funding for parks, has declined sharply over the last three decades. Last year, our state received $1.4 million from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, down from a peak of $20 million in 1978. New York's great natural and national treasures are a part of the state park system and we should be getting more assistance from the federal government.

New York is fortunate for the Senate's partnership in protecting our abundance of scenic beauty, recreational opportunity and historic significance through our world class state parks system. Thank you for helping to sustain the State Park System's unique contributions to the well-being of our citizens and economically vibrant local communities across New York State in these difficult times. I welcome your questions.