The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

February 26, 2010

Proposal to close parks a pointless budget cut


How much does it cost a year to own a couple thousand acres of tax-exempt land that requires virtually no maintenance?

I mean, talk about a pointless budget cut.

But the Robert V. Riddell State Park near Colliersville was one of the dozens of park closures and scale-downs announced last week by the governor and parks baroness as a way to help get out from under the gigantic state budget deficit.

Gov. David Paterson, who Friday announced he will not run for re-election, said ``the unfortunate reality of closing an $8.2 billion deficit is that there is less money available for many worthy services and programs. In an environment when we have to cut funding to schools, hospitals, nursing homes and social services, no area of state spending, including parks and historic sites, could be exempt from reductions.''

OK, no line item and no program should be exempt from the pain of the fiscal crisis, but I guarantee that most taxpayers could find other places to cut where the lowering of the deficit would be much greater and the effect on ordinary people much less.

After all, the $6.3 million saved by closing 41 parks and 14 historic sites, and reducing services at 24 others, would be a fraction of 1 percent of the state's deficit.

In fact, if the governor gave up just one trip to New York City a month, the savings surely would more than cover the costs of keeping the Riddell park open and a few others in the region placed on the proposed chopping block. They include the Oquaga Creek park south of Bainbridge and Hunts Pond in Chenango County.

The Riddell park and Hunts Pond are similar in that they have virtually no staff and require very little maintenance. They basically are places to hike, fish, snowshoe or watch birds. No swimming, pavilions or entry fees, though the pond does offer ``primitive'' camping sites.

Oquaga has swimming, picnicking and camping, and charges a fee to enter, so there are regular paid staffers to collect fees and maintain the grounds.

The Riddell park, a gift from the Riddell family in 2005, begins in the Schenevus Creek valley near Interstate 88 and extends up over the ridge to connect with a Department of Environmental Conservation parcel. In 2008, Hartwick College sold hundreds of acres north of Charlotte Creek Road to the state, and that links with the Riddell park.

Since the proposal to close the parks has to be approved by state lawmakers as part of budget negotiations, it is not clear what impact a ``Park Closed'' sign will have on Riddell. Certainly, to pay someone to keep people from hiking, fishing or bird watching would cost more than is spent now at the park.

At this point, many state park enthusiasts are banking on state legislators to find that $6.3 million in park cutbacks somewhere else in the budget. And if lawmakers haven't gotten the message yet, they will soon.

Already, a rally by park supporters has been planned for Wednesday in Albany, and a Facebook page, Save Our State Parks, has been set up to help spread the word.

One argument park supporters plan to stress is the impact parks have on local economies. A report last year by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, found that for every dollar a state spends on parks, it gets back $5 in economic activity.

That may or may not be true for small parks such as Riddell, but it definitely makes sense for some of the larger parks, such as Oquaga.

What it comes down to is that taxpayers don't think they should take all the hits for a fiscal crisis and budget deficit that they blame not only on the sour economy's impact on state revenues, but also on one of the most dysfunctional state governments in the country.

Just look at a few of the comments submitted for this newspaper's website story on the proposed park closures.

One said, ``The cuts are always on the backs of those of us who get up and go to work everyday and support those who don't. It is time to vote them ALL out of office no matter who they are or what party they belong to.'' Another: The legislature "¦ has a $220 million budget. Members average a staff of 13! The staff is there to get them re-elected. Reduce that budget by 10% and we can keep all the parks.'' This is an election year, so I suspect state lawmakers will hear that kind of sentiment out there as they address not only park closures, but also cuts to school-aid and reductions related to health care.

And I bet that if legislators did look deeply into their own expenditures, they could find the money to keep the parks open in their own districts.

Cary Brunswick is a former managing editor of The Daily Star and editor of oneontatoday.com. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net.