In writing about park closures over at TAP, one of the comments mentioned that the staff at one state park had seemed “grumpy” last year. I replied “If you’re seeing it, then things are really bad.” After thinking about it for a while, I realized that it’s been going downhill for a while. This year saw the announcement that a large number of state parks would be closed. An additional 24 are on the chopping block, if certain “budget tricks” don’t happen. Last year, there were serious budget and personnel cuts in many of the state Departments – including the two that have major park systems. This was followed by hiring freezes, and further budget cuts throughout the year.
One of the people I know here who used to run a campground shocked his supervisors when he refused to return. I asked him about it one day, and he told me the reasons. “Everybody thinks it’s a great job, and that I was crazy to give it up. What they don’t know was that I had half the staff I used to have, things were falling apart and I couldn’t get anyone in to fix them, or get the materials to fix them myself. Not only did I have campers bitching at me, I had headquarters people driving through and then yelling at me about crap like the grass not being mowed in a back area. We were killing ourselves just to keep the bathrooms and sites clean!” He said that the stress of getting through that season was enormous, and just the thought of going back got him stressed again.
I’ve heard similar stories from different places around the state. State parks have had tight budgets for years. Any time there’s state-wide budget crunch, and New York has had them regularly, one of the first things to get tightened is operational and maintenance costs. Whenever a need for a “popular” cut in government employees comes along, it’s almost always the field positions that get cut. Which is understandable, except that when the budget crunch eases, the funding and positions aren’t restored. When you factor in that politicians like to occasionally burnish their records by adding parks to the system without adding the extra resources to run them, it further stretches the park personnel and budgets.
The effect has been a series of ongoing cuts to the park systems, even when there aren’t formal cuts. If you’ve previously sliced “the fat” off of a system, gotten it down to “lean and mean” (read bare minimum necessary), and then add more parks and responsibility to that existing level, you’ve made a cut. Even if your budget shows no change, or a slight uptick to allow for inflation and pay raises, it’s still a cut.
If you’ve ever worked someplace that’s getting ready to cut back, or is going through a downturn, you’ll recognize the symptoms. Not only is money tight, everyone recognizes that jobs may – or will – be lost. You don’t know if you are on the chopping block, how bad it’s going to be, and for how long. Even if you do keep your job, your workload has gone up. It’s not calculated to make you “cheerful.” I’ve been in those situations, and it’s never pleasant. The uncertainty about the future along with the stress of limited budgets and increased work take their toll. What does carry you through those times in most situations, is the knowledge that things will eventually get better. Budgets will increase, personnel will be hired, pay will start to rise again, the workload will return to normal, and the uncertainty will fade.
The problem with the way we’ve been treating our parks is that it never gets better. Another friend of mine who’s been running parks for a long time told me “I get through by thinking next year will be better. The problem is that next year is always worse.” For a very long time, park personnel have been dealing with failing infrastructure that never gets money to repair it, personnel cuts or hiring freezes, watching as money is shifted from one area to another in mid-year, and do the best they can with what they have. It’s a case of “the beatings will continue until morale improves” for them. It’s hard to remain upbeat over time, when things never seem to get better. Then the recession hits, and the state budget is being drastically cut. You find out it can get worse. Not only is the already inadequate funding cut, but you’re not even sure that your park will be open anymore.
Is it any wonder that the stress levels are going to go through the roof? Morale is at low point, and yes, they are going to be angry. This year, if you notice the park staffs seem “grumpy” it’s because they are. They’re hitting a breaking point, and it’s becoming impossible to keep a cheery face to the public. They know that things aren’t going to get better for them. The effort to keep parks open is just one small part of what we should be advocating. We should also be advocating to make sure that they have the resources they need, and to prevent this from happening in the future.