I’ve devoted several posts here to the state of our parks, and the threatened closure of a number of them. Anyone who has paid attention was not surprised by the enormous public outrage over this decision. It now looks as if the closure will be (mostly) reversed in the budget process, and the parks will be kept open. This year. The measures this year involve scraping the money together to keep the parks operating, but it does nothing for their maintenance issues or long-term viability. If anything, it’s exacerbating the maintenance issue by shifting funds from maintenance to operations. In a recent column Fred LeBrun made a point that I’ve been thinking about for a while:
But a reality check suggests it’s only the first hurdle in a long road. What about next year? Borrowing from the capital budget is probably a one-time deal. There has to be a long-term fix, too.
Once the current battle is over, that is where our attention should be focused. It’s not enough to think that we can keep doing this every year. We should be thinking about our entire parks system, and how we will keep them going for the future. That means taking a long, hard look at them, from top to bottom. New York has one of the largest park systems in the country. It has the largest single park in the lower 48. As I’ve stated in an earlier post, it has two major park agencies – the Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historical Preservation, and the Department of Environmental Conservation. Each of these by themselves are among the largest park systems in the nation, and would be impressive in their own right. But there are also several state authorities which run recreation and park systems. While the numbers are impressive as an indicator of the importance of parks to the people of New York, what isn’t impressive is the way they’ve funded them. It’s not just New York, almost every state has this issue. The recession has forced many states to close parks, and has started a long overdue discussion of how parks are funded, and what can be done to keep them.
This has been a long-term problem. We, the people of the State own these properties. All of us. It’s not “state property,” it’s our property. When you look at how we’ve managed our parks, it’s hard not to draw an inescapable conclusion: We’re slumlords. When you consider that we’ve allowed our parks over the years to develop a maintenance backlog that now totals over 700 million dollars, and possibly more when looking at the entire system, along with cutting personnel over the years, it’s hard not to draw that conclusion. We have taken “crown jewels” – ecologically or historically important places under our stewardship, and allowed them to deteriorate – sometimes beyond repair. It’s long past time to step up and change that. What do I suggest? Several things.
First, we need to evaluate our existing parks. Because of the number of state agencies that run parks and recreation systems, this is a major task in itself. We need to evaluate them, and ask ourselves if it’s necessary to have a given park. What purpose – historically, environmentally, or other need – does it serve? What resources does it need to operate? What maintenance does it need, now and in the future? Those are basic questions. Then we need to look at how we manage and staff the system. Is there extensive overlap? Is the system too top-heavy? Do we have a management system that’s optimal? Should agencies be merged or discontinued?
Once that process is completed, we should develop long term plans. The state constitution specifically states that the Forest Preserve – the state property in the Adirondacks and Catskills – is to be “forever wild,” and states that it can’t be sold or developed. That means that what exists now will always need management, which is true of many of our parks and state historical sites. While some may argue for selling them, the reality is that it either can’t be done politically, or there are legal barriers to it. Even if there were none, there are a very limited number that would be desirable properties from a private owner or business standpoint. Because they are a permanent fixture, that should lead us to plan accordingly. Major maintenance and infrastructure needs have been badly skimped on in the past, and that needs to stop. A regular cycle – budgeted and planned – for those should be a part of the planning. At the same time, we need to have a view for acquisitions – when we add a park or lands – to determine which are desirable, which ones aren’t, and how we’re going to integrate them into the existing system. We should have a regular review process to re-evaluate the system, to determine what, if any changes should be made to it.
Finally, we need to have a diverse and dedicated funding for it. What the current crisis has shown us is that our parks systems are far too dependent on funding from the state’s general fund. The whims of legislatures, a decline in revenues, or other budget crises when they occur cause havoc in planning and in operating parks. While the need for that funding will likely never go away, other sources of revenue should be developed to buffer the park systems against those times. There have been a number of ideas floated, ranging from taxes on soda, corporate sponsorships, to increased fees. All should be explored, and a mix of them may be end up being used. At the same time, if a dedicated funding mechanism is created, it should stay dedicated. As has been seen far too often in the past, politicians have trouble keeping their hands off of theoretically dedicated funds, and find ways to use them for other purposes. That needs to be prevented.
Even after all of that is done, we should understand that some park s may end up being closed, while others may be transferred to private groups, towns or counties. Some may indeed be sold. We have a large park system, one of the largest in the country. It’s something we’re proud of, and it serves many purposes. But we need to look critically at it, and make some hard choices. We can no longer be slumlords, we must be responsible owners, and that means keeping up what we have.