Trying to figure out what parks really cost

Last year, there was an announcement made by DEC that they were going to be closing 6 campgrounds.  It caused a major stir around here, since state campgrounds are major economic linchpins.   It was then that I became seriously interested in how the state manages and funds its parks, in order to help make the case for leaving them open.   When I started, I thought that it would be a fairly straightforward process, a matter of a few days.    It was anything but.

Most people, when they think “state parks,” think there is one agency.  New York even has an Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historical Preservation.   They do indeed run a large number of state parks and historical sites.  But there’s also another major state agency that has significant responsibilities – the Department of Environmental Conservation.   Then it turns out that there are a number of smaller state agencies and authorities which also have parks & recreation facilities.  Trying to track down all of them is a daunting task in and of itself.  Making it even more difficult is when it’s not a primary responsibility of a department, but an auxiliary function.   Adding yet another level of difficulty is the plethora of funding sources.    There are revenue generating activities, federal grants, state special accounts, and the general budget.  Some are operational funding, some are strictly capital funding. Any and all of which can be a part – or the entirety – of a given park’s funding.

There’s such a web of responsibilities and funding sources that it turns out that it’s virtually impossible to determine what our park systems really cost, and what they really need.    A “simple” thing, like a project to build a new boat launch at a facility may be the responsibility of the parent department or another department.  The funding may be from any one – or all – of several sources.    It makes it difficult to advocate for our parks, because often we’re not sure of who we’re supposed to be talking to or how they’re funded.

There is also a serious concern of exactly how money is spent.  One of the questions that I’ve heard from a number of people when discussing DEC campground closures is this:  “What did they do with the money they made?”   It turns out that campgrounds are supposed to be “cost neutral” – that is, they’re supposed to be self-funding.   Their revenue is supposed to go into a special reserve account, to fund the next year’s operations.  What people are questioning is that, if the campgrounds had a banner year last year (and they did), why should a budget cut be in order?   If there was enough money last year – and in previous years – to run them, why,  a year after when they supposedly set records is there a need to make so many cuts?  There’s a dark suspicion of “skimming,” and to be honest, it’s a difficult one to rebut, because no one seems to really know.

Once we get past the current crisis,  we need to start thinking about the long-term.   One of the major tasks should be to unravel the web of our park systems, their costs and their funding.   We’re proud of our parks, we want them to continue, we want them to remain something we’re proud of.  But in order to do so, we need to know who’s responsible for them, and what they really cost.   There needs to be major changes in how we run our parks, and it is long past the time we started that.

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