State Parks Dilemma

Down $9 billion in the coming year and three times as much looking ahead to the next two years, it seems strange to many that Governor Paterson is proposing saving $11 million by closing a number of parks run by the departments of Parks and Recreation and Environmental Conservation.

Whether it’s efficient to have two agencies each with their own set of parks is a question that has never been answered satisfactorily in my opinion, but the question for the moment is can those 50+ parks be saved AND help the state’s budget deficit? The answer is “Of course!”

The problem is that many parks are net money losers. They don’t generate enough revenue in user fees to cover their operating costs. Other parks operate at a profit. That suggests an easy two-step solution:

1) Partner revenue positive parks with money losing parks so that the combination is revenue neutral. By partner I am suggesting that operations be merged so that management and staffing overlap. Obviously such parks would have to be in close enough proximity to assign people and equipment between parks as needed.

2) For those parks that are losing money and which do not lend themselves to being paired with a money-making facility, the answer is to either reduce costs, increase fees or both.

Wouldn’t increasing fees at money-losing parks result in fewer people going to those parks? Possibly, but if that turns out to be the case, then those are parks that should be closed. The opposite is also possible — i.e., that due to location and the kinds of facilities they offer, many state parks would not lose greatly in attendance if fees were increased by one or two dollars per visit. Those parks could then remain open.

The basic principle that I’m suggesting here is that those people who want to use a state resource ought to be willing to pay in user fees what it costs to provide that resource. If a particular park costs users $25/day and another costs only $10/day, then so be it. The customer, not someone sitting in Albany, ought to decide if that $25/day park is worth it.

The third leg of saving the state parks is to reduce overhead. I would either merge all of Parks and Recreation into DEC or perhaps look at moving parts of DEC into P&R, but the end result would have to be that fewer people would be responsible for overseeing what more people are managing today.

The cost savings from consolidating agencies should come from reducing the number of people in managerial positions rather than the folks who are delivering services. Modern technology enables supervisors to manage more people effectively in 2010 than they were able to do in 2000 or 1990, etc. That concept ought to be introduced into state government in general and into the problem of running the state parks in particular.

Other options include selling money losing parks to counties or other local governments to run. It is possible that local governments could find ways to make the parks in question into revenue positive operations.

The worse thing we can do is look at this question as $11 million budget savings versus $11 million to be borrowed or taxed. There are alternatives (see above) if we are willing to consider them.

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