Welcome to the new reality for parks

In a comment in my previous post,  NYCO asked the reason why a  problem wasn’t repaired at the park she’s staying at.   Her question was:

“The bathrooms are very clean, but the equipment is just beyond needing replacement. Watkins Glen seems like it must be a popular park that makes some money. When budgeting, how do they justify this neglect?”

At this time, the answer is most likely because there isn’t a state budget.  The park is probably under an austerity regimen which limits what they can do – including buying repair parts.  The much larger answer is because the state has been skimping on maintenance for years.  It’s easy to ignore the “small things,” particularly when the people making the ultimate budget decisions are far removed from the actual problem and the budget climate isn’t good.   Having been in the situation of drawing up budget requests in large organizations and government, I have some experience with the process.

What you do when you’re putting together your budget request (it’s never “a budget”) is to sit down and add up a number of things.  The number of people you have (or want), and their salaries and benefits, the cost of transportation, utility costs, equipment, and supplies.  That’s your “basic budget,”  the things you need to work and keep the lights on. Then you start adding on the “wish list” – the costs for all the things you’d like to do,  equipment you’d like to get, or major capital projects.   Along with all the numbers, you have to come up with what we used to call in the military “suitable bullshit” – the justifications for why you need the money.     In an ideal world, that budget would be sent along, and mostly approved.  But, this is not the ideal world, and that’s just the start of the process.

Once you’ve come up with your request, it gets sent on to another level – department, division, or region.  The people there take your budget request along with all the other people who sent in theirs, and start slicing and dicing.   Depending on where you are in the food chain, you might get a chance to argue your case, but generally you’re not.  They’ll decide if you really need all the people you have (or requested), whether you’re going to get anything on your “wish list,” or even decide you don’t really need all that equipment and supplies.  Once they’re done, it goes on to a headquarters, and the process repeats itself.   In the private sector, that’s where the process stops.  If you’ve done a really good job of justifying your budget request, you’ll probably get a budget that bears more than a passing resemblance to what you requested.  If you haven’t, or things aren’t going well, you won’t.   In government, it moves to the executive office – the President, Governor, or other chief executive.  They may or may not approve it all, or might send it back to the headquarters for reworking.  It really doesn’t matter what justifications you used at this point – they’re not seeing them.  Then it gets sent on the the legislature, and once again various politicians have their whacks at it.  Sometimes you have a fairy godlegislator who will bless you with an unexpected appropriation, and sometimes you’ll have it taken away.  The budget you end up with may bear very little relation to what you actually requested – or need.  You might have gotten cuts to things you actually need to do your job.   One of the other added little fillips in government service is the dreaded “spending freeze.”  We used to get these all the time when I was in the military.  Suddenly, we’d be told “no purchases.”  Someone, somewhere ran short, and money had to be reallocated, which put major crimps in our work.

So what does all this have to do with the parks?  The beginning of the year saw the announcement that many parks and campgrounds were being closed.  It caused a huge public outcry.  Finally, just before Memorial Day, the legislature passed a bill which kept the closures at bay.  As I pointed out at the time, this was a mixed blessing.  Yes, the parks were “saved” and would be open, but the havoc created by the entire “close/open/cut” mess that played out still goes on.  It wasn’t helped by the continuing saga of the Albany budget wars.   Personnel were shifted around – and then back – and seasonal hiring was either delayed or cut.  Without a budget, the continuing resolutions simply gave the parks the authorization to spend “bare minimum” – to cover the basics, but nothing more.  Even with a budget, there have been serious cuts to maintenance and operational funds.  Equipment that should be replaced won’t be, patrols and park maintenance  have been reduced, and things that many people  took for granted will not be there.

This is not “new,” although it may appear to people to be something new.  It’s the result of something that’s been happening for over a decade.  Park maintenance is one of the easiest areas to cut when times are tight.  The problem is that when things turned around, there was no restoration of the funding – the reduced budget became the “new normal.”   It’s why the astonishing figure of over 700 million dollars in maintenance backlog came to be – and that was before the economy went into recession.  Up until this time though, the park staffs were able to “hide” the problem.  Back areas might not get mowed at all while others get mowed less, a lesser-used trail might not be maintained, storage buildings don’t get painted, tables don’t get painted, and brush doesn’t get trimmed.   Seasonal staffs get trimmed back, so tasks get “shifted”  from preventative maintenance to “just keeping the place clean.”   The supervisor’s priorities have to shift from “like to do” to “need to do only.”    That’s been the situation now on state parks for a while.

Now comes the recession and serious budget cut-backs.   Further staff cutbacks, and further maintenance cuts.   Even more things end up moving from “need to do” to “would like to do if.”  It’s at this point that people will start to notice the problem.  As NYCO pointed out, latches and sinks were broken in bathrooms.  I’m absolutely certain the park manager would like to fix it – and they even have asked for the money to do so.  The problem is that they didn’t get it.  It may seem ridiculous that they couldn’t buy a $5 part, but multiply that by 20 or so, and it’s a $100 cost item that they don’t have in their budget – or authorization to purchase it.  The same holds true for replacing a sink.  They run anywhere from $120 to $450 dollars, and probably you’d need the $450 one.   It’s money that’s not in their budget – and if you’re talking 10 or 20 sinks, you’re talking almost $10,000 for that alone.  So they’re going to be able to keep the bathrooms clean, but they’re not going to be able to fix them if someone breaks them – and someone will do that.

That’s the new reality for the parks.  If it’s broken, it’s going to stay broken.  The park staff isn’t going to be able to hide it anymore.   If a lawnmower breaks down, it means the grass doesn’t get mowed.  There is no money for replacement or repair.   It’s not going to change for a while – and it may be years before the damage can be undone, if it ever is.


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