Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

Press Release

December 13, 2010

Eileen Larrabee
Dan Keefe

Acting Commissioner Beers' Testimony Before Assembly Standing Committee on Tourism, Parks, Arts and Sports Development; Assembly Standing Committee on Oversight, Analysis and Investigation

New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Acting Commissioner Andy Beers
December 13, 2010

Assemblyman Englebright and Assemblywoman Titus, thank you for the invitation to participate in today's hearing. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to discuss critical issues facing the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the New York State Park System.

2010 Overview

2010 will certainly be remembered as a critical year for State Parks. New York's fiscal crisis has necessitated reductions to every part of state government. OPRHP has been no exception - our agency has implemented a series of actions to reduce our staffing and operating budget in response to the unprecedented budget deficits facing New York State.

As you know, last February our agency announced that, as a result of budget reductions, 55 state parks and historic sites would be closed. In late May, Governor Paterson and the Legislature reached agreement to restore $11 million to OPRHP's operating budget, avoiding the need for park closures. All state parks and historic sites were quickly opened, and the public came to our parks in record numbers - with attendance projected to exceed 57 million visitors this year. Allow me to express my deep appreciation to you and your colleagues in the Assembly and Senate for your strong support for the park system and your leadership in providing funding that enabled our parks and historic sites to remain open this year.

However, New York continues to face very serious fiscal problems. The state must address a $315 million shortfall this fiscal year and a projected budget deficit exceeding $9 billion in 2011-12. In order to secure $250 million in workforce savings that were assumed in the current year (2010-11) enacted budget, state agencies were directed to reduce their permanent workforce. In OPHRP's case, our authorized staffing level has been reduced to 1,785 positions, effective December 31st. This represents a reduction of 221 staff from the 2,006 positions that were authorized in our original 2010-11 budget, as enacted last May.

Approximately two-thirds of OPRHP's 2010-11 staff reductions have been achieved through attrition and the Early Retirement Incentive program. However, OPRHP needed to eliminate 76 positions through employee layoffs in order to reach the 1,785 employee fill target by December 31st. The 76 employees whose positions have been eliminated received final layoff notices on December 7th.

OPRHP has endeavored to minimize the impacts of staff and budget reductions on the public services we provide at our state parks and historic sites. First, OPRHP has eliminated a number of programs and initiatives that did not directly support park operations, including:

  • The Heritage Trails Program.
  • Support for the Heritage Areas System.
  • The Green Thumb Program.
  • The Preservationist Magazine.
  • The Historic Battlefield Flag Conservation Program.
  • Our Student Conservation Association/Americorps Contract.

And second, we have significantly reduced the size of the central staff in our Albany and Peebles Island offices - our central staff has been reduced from 255 in 2008 to 186 positions today, which equates to a 27% reduction in staff.

However, our Albany/Peebles Island staff account for only 10% of our employees. Given that ninety percent of our staff is located in the field - directly supporting park and historic site operations, maintenance, and safety - the 76 layoffs occurring at the end of the year will necessitate the closing of several facilities.

At Knox Farm State Park in Erie County, two staff positions have been eliminated (one through the Early Retirement Incentive and the other by layoff), and the remaining three staff are being reassigned to Niagara Falls State Park to cover positions lost at that park. In November, we informed local officials that as a result of the staff eliminations, Knox Farm State Park will be closed. We have recently been approached by a group of local officials including the Town of Aurora, the Village of East Aurora, Senate and Assembly members, and representatives of the Friends of Knox Farm, who are evaluating whether the local municipalities have the capacity to operate the park next year. These discussions are ongoing.

All staff positions have been eliminated at two state golf courses in central New York: Springbrook Greens Golf Course (an 18-hole course in Cayuga County) and Pinnacle State Park Golf Course (a 9-hole course in Steuben County). OPRHP has issued RFPs seeking private operators for both courses. Under the terms of the RFPs, the courses will remain open to the public. The private operator will assume all costs for operating the facilities (staff, supplies, utilities, etc.) and will retain all revenues. Responses to the RFPs were due last Friday and will be evaluated through the state's normal competitive bidding processes. The two courses are already closed for this season. In the event that no private operator is identified, the two golf courses will not reopen in 2011.

There will be additional impacts next year due to staff reductions. We anticipate that several state historic sites, normally closed for the winter, will not open in 2011. In addition to a small number of facility closures, we expect to reduce days and hours of operation, facility maintenance and upkeep, and interpretive programming at other facilities next year. At other locations, some swimming pools, nature centers, and campgrounds may not open. We currently are evaluating staff deployment plans for 2011 to respond to the loss of 221 positions that we have absorbed since the end of last summer from attrition, Early Retirement departures, and layoffs. Decisions on site closures and other operational reductions will not be finalized until we complete our staff deployment plans and make reassignments to address facility staffing needs.

Our State Park Police have also absorbed significant reductions. Due to the state's fiscal situation, our Park Police Academy was again cancelled this year - our last Academy was held in FY2007-08. The Park Police force has declined from 300 officers in 2007 to 245 members today. The force continues to experience attrition of approximately 25 officers per year. The reduction in Park Police officers continues to be a strain on our system.

As part of the layoffs, OPRHP also eliminated the 6-person unit that administered the Empire State Games. OPRHP has announced that all 2011 Empire State Games will be cancelled, starting with the Winter Games scheduled for February. As has been widely reported in the press, the Village and Town of Lake Placid have initiated an effort to hold the Winter Games this coming February, without State Parks involvement. A group of officials in Rochester and Monroe County is evaluating whether they could stage the 2011 Summer Games. OPRHP is providing information to the Lake Placid and Rochester groups.

These actions - laying off staff, closing facilities, cancelling the Empire State Games - are difficult steps for our employees, for the agency, and for the public we serve. We did not take them lightly. However, the reality is that New York State's revenues are not sufficient to continue historical agency spending levels, meaning these decisions are necessary to realign State Parks' expenditures with the level of resources available to the agency.

Revenue Actions

In response to budget reductions, OPRHP has aggressively sought to increase its revenues. Over the past four years, the agency increased annual revenues by $17 million, which equates to a 24 percent increase. This year, OPRHP's revenues will total $94 million, providing one-third of our total operating budget and more than half of our capital budget. Over the past two years alone, OPRHP has increased recurring revenues by $10 million through the following actions:

  • Park user fees have been increased by approximately 25% including day-use entrance fees, camping and cabin rental fees, golf, marina fees, picnic shelter rentals, and other amenities.
  • An out-of-state surcharge has been instituted on campsite and cabin rentals.
  • Reforms were implemented to the agency's Access Pass program.

By law, all park revenues are retained by OPRHP to support operating costs and capital projects. The agency's revenue actions avoided what would have been deep cuts to park and historic site operations.

OPRHP has also vigorously pursued private contributions and sponsorships to augment state funding:

  • Private Sponsorships. OPHRP has secured dozens of private sponsors to support State Park programs. Example include: the Open Space Alliance organized a concert series at East River State Park that generated more than $200,000 for state parks operations; Bethpage Federal Credit Union sponsored the 2010 Jones Beach Memorial Day Airshow and other events on Long Island; the Nestle/Juicy Juice corporation donated $350,000 toward construction of playgrounds at seven state parks; Cascadian Farms provided $30,000 and marketing assistance; and Odwalla provided funding for tree planting projects on the Avenue of the Pines at Saratoga Spa and other state parks.
  • Private Fundraising. With support from the State Council of Parks, during 2010 OPRHP raised millions of dollars of charitable contributions from private individuals. Examples of projects that recently received private gifts include: restoration of the Geyser area at Saratoga Spa State Park; improvements to Taconic Falls State Park's day-use area; a bequest to make improvements to the Trailside Museum and Zoo at Bear Mountain State Park; and development of public facilities at Betty and Wilbur Davis State Park. In addition, at its one-year anniversary in October, the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park celebrated the Dyson Foundation, Scenic Hudson, and many other donors who contributed private funds to the project. The Walkway welcomed more than 750,000 visitors in its first year of operation.

Agency Efficiency Strategies

OPRHP continues to pursue a number of new strategies and partnerships in response to budget and staffing reductions. Here are some examples of efforts currently underway in the agency:

  • Park Operations. The agency has reduced seasons, days, and hours of operation at more than 100 state parks and historic sites. This year, many campgrounds and golf courses opened a month later and closed a month earlier than in the past. Mid-week (e.g. Tuesday-Wednesday) closures have been instituted at a number of swimming beaches and campgrounds. Public services have been reduced at many parks during the off-season (October through May). Buildings are winterized and closed, restrooms locked, roads and parking lots are not plowed, etc.
  • Partnership With Friends Groups. OPRHP has established new non-profit Friends Groups at 16 state parks and historic sites since 2007. There are now more than 75 Friends Groups that provide assistance, funding and volunteers at OPRHP facilities.
  • Private Concessions. Currently, OPRHP has more than 100 concession agreements with for-profit businesses to operate public amenities in state parks and historic sites. These concession agreements range from large-scale international companies such as Delaware North and Guest Services Inc., to small family run businesses. In total, OPRHP concessionaires generate more than $90 million annually in gross receipts, of which roughly $9 million is returned to OPRHP as direct revenue to support park operations.
  • Municipal Agreements. In the last two years, OPRHP has transferred management responsibility for seven facilities to local governments and federal agencies. Ownership of Empire Fulton Ferry State Park and the undeveloped South Beach property have been transferred to New York City. The National Park Service has assumed management responsibility for Oriskany Battlefield and Steuben Memorial State Historic Sites. OPRHP has entered into agreements with local governments to operate the Oak Orchard Boat Launch (Orleans County) and Beechwood State Park (Town of Sodus). And just last week the agency announced that the Town of Hamburg will take over operation of Woodlawn Beach State Park in Erie County, starting this spring.
  • State Park Police. Historically, the Park Police were organized into eleven units corresponding to our eleven state park regions. We are in the process of streamlining the eleven units into five regions, thereby eliminating six senior management (police major) positions, and enabling more efficient deployment of our Park Police force to address the agency's most pressing public safety issues.
  • Improved Efficiency Through Technology. OPRHP has developed a Point of Sale system for park entrance booths and other locations where we collect revenue. This system will replace cash boxes and cash registers, with desktop and handheld computer units. The new system will reduce the number of staff required to collect entrance fees, and automate and thereby reduce staff time for processing and reporting revenue. We will pilot test the system at 10 park entrance lanes on Long Island this spring. In addition, OPRHP is experimenting with automated parking "pay stations" at several facilities (historically the agency has relied exclusively on staff to collect entrance fees). In 2010, automated systems were installed at the Walkway Over the Hudson and Watkins Glen State Park.

While OPRHP is aggressively pursuing efficiencies, partnerships, and private fundraising and sponsorships, I do need to emphasize that the state park system cannot run on private support alone. Even with increased partnerships and the $17 million of new annual revenue generated over the past for years through park fee increases, the state General Fund still accounts for more than half of OPRHP's operating budget. Continued state support is essential to the operation and maintenance of our parks and historic sites.

State Parks Capital Program

OPRHP continues to aggressively advance capital construction projects to address the park system's pressing health & safety and facility rehabilitation needs. Over the last four years, OPHRP has invested more than $300 million in park and historic site capital projects - with nearly $100 million spent annually in fiscal years 2008-09 and 2009-10.

 Examples of major projects completed during 2010 include:

  • Jones Beach State Park - The agency completed a $6 million restoration of the park's iconic 1929 water tower, which is the sole source of drinking water for the entire park and the adjacent U.S. Coast Guard Station.
  • Robert Moses State Park - OPRHP completed a $1 million emergency project to replenish sand at the Field 4 & 5 ocean beaches in response to severe erosion from winter storms.
  • Roberto Clemente State Park - The agency finished rehabilitation of the park's 30-year old swimming pool, aquatics facilities, and locker rooms. The project was funded through mitigation funds provided by New York City.
  • Letchworth State Park - OPRHP completed an $884,000 project to install two new drinking water treatment systems on the east side of the park.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park - Using privately donated funds, OPRHP restored deteriorated recreational facilities and constructed a new picnic pavilion.
  • Chenango Valley State Park - The agency completed several capital projects totaling $1.6 million, including installation of a new underground electrical distribution system (replacing outdated wiring) and reconstruction of the Page Brook camping area, including new water and sewage systems, that was destroyed by a flood several years ago.
  • Taughannock Falls State Park - OPRHP completed construction of a $1.8 million drinking water treatment and distribution system to service the park (the previous system did not meet health code requirements).

Many of these projects were funded through the State Parks Capital Initiative, which provided $94 million in bonded capital funds to the agency in fiscal years 2008-09 and 2009-10. I am pleased to report that 100 percent of the bonded Capital Initiative funds have been encumbered. Most of the projects are already completed, and the remainder are now underway.

Due to the state's unprecedented fiscal challenges, the bonded State Parks Capital Initiative was not continued in OPRHP's FY2010-11 budget. This year, the agency is focusing its available capital funds - provided through the State Park Infrastructure Fund (SPIF) and the Environmental Protection Fund Stewardship line - on addressing high priority health and safety issues in our facilities.

Thank you for providing me the opportunity to provide this summary of OPRHP's 2010 activities. I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.