Governor Paterson has proposed slashing the state Parks Department by 22% in his new budget. That comes after two years of lean budgets for the state's 214 parks and historic sites that has led to the reduction of over 200 jobs. Parks Commissioner Carole Ash, testifying at a hearing by the joint legislative fiscal committees, admitted that park closures are a likely consequence of the cuts.
"Given the fiscal reality that we are facing, I don't see that we have an alternative right now," said Ash.
But Ash would not reveal which parks are slated for closure, though she did list some criteria that might be considered, such as how many people use a particular park, and whether it's located near a similar facility, and said park officials are "grappling" with the tough decisions.
Last year several parks cut back hours and closed some amenities that are costly to maintain, like swimming pools.
Robin Dropkin, with Parks and Trails, New York, a non profit organization that advocates for parks, says cutting back on hours and services likely won't be enough this year.
"I have no doubt that parks will close," said Dropkin, who said the agency has suffered a 40% cut over the past two years.
"That's getting close to half," Dropkin said.
Dropkin says the parks commissioner should make public which parks are on the closure list. She says last year the parks department did not announce details of cutbacks until after the budget was passed, when it was too late to rally support for the parks, and she fears the same scenario will be repeated this year.
"People will be very angry," said Dropkin, who says full disclosure by the parks agency on what parks might not open this year would be "the honest thing to do".
While keeping a park closed to save money in a tight financial year might seem like a good idea on the surface, Dropkin says once a park closes it's likely to remain closed for awhile, and after that, the costs to reopen neglected facilities may be prohibitive.
The state parks do bring in revenues, through entrance fees, camping and other charges, which pay for around one third of the budget for parks and historic sites. Paterson has not recommended upping fees at the parks.
Parks Commissioner Ash testified that attendance is up at parks, to 56 million visitors last year, an increase of two million people.
Dropkin says one possibility to help weather the recession is for more volunteers to help with the upkeep of the parks, through projects like trail maintenance and running educational programs.