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Allocation of parks funds still a mystery

Friday, April 4, 2014
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The new state budget includes $90 million for improvements to state parks, though how it will be spent remains a mystery.

The spending first proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo is enough to please outdoor advocates who were briefly scared when the state Senate tossed the money out of its budget, a flashback to the recent years when state parks got essentially no capital investment.

In the end, more Democratic heads prevailed, but finding out how the money will be spent is tough. The Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation says the projects list is a work in progress.

“We will have a lot of exciting things to share about Saratoga but not quite ready to release until it’s in fact finalized,” parks spokesman Randy Simon said in an email Friday. “Don’t have a timetable just yet.”

Last year, specifics on $90 million in capital spending were kept under wraps until Cuomo was ready to issue a press release himself, in mid-May. A similar scenario this year would surprise no one.

Last year’s projects included the much-needed repaving of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center Parking lot, and also removal of trees that had grown to block the stunning cliff-top views in John Boyd Thatcher State Park.

There was also money to design a new visitors center for Thatcher Park, which stretches across several miles of the Helderberg escarpment in Albany County.

I hope there’s cash this year to build that visitors center, since Thatcher might best is described as having a world-class natural setting matched with facilities it would be a stretch to call even state-class.

Money for paving wouldn’t be a bad idea, either, since Thatcher and many other state parks have roads whose crumbling pavement would embarrass Ecuador.

The state budget document is short on specifics. Of the $92.5 million for state parks improvements, the only specific is that $2.5 million go to the Olympic Regional Development Authority, which last year took over the Belleayre ski area in the Catskills.

State parks saw a record 60 million visitors last year, so roads and restrooms from Grafton to Letchworth have been getting a workout.

The Environmental Protection Fund also got some extra in the final budget deal, though far short of the $200 million environmental advocates wanted.

The final figure was $162 million, which is $9 million more than last year, and $5 million more than Cuomo originally proposed.

The EPF’s allocation process is also mysterious, but that’s normal. It’s to be dipped into — not to balance the general state budget, as David Paterson did — but to field requests to buy mountains and waterfalls, preserve farms, pay water-quality monitors, or maybe convert an old storage center into a farmers’ market.

“These extra dollars for the EPF mean more protection for New York’s environment, more protected wilderness and more resources to take care of those precious lands,” said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club.

But not everyone thinks it’s enough money to meet the state’s needs, or was as willing as others to simply bow down in thanks to Cuomo and lawmakers.

“Despite the modest increase in funding for this year’s EPF over past years, this budget falls well short of what is needed to protect the environment and provide our communities with the resources to grow healthy,” said Peter Iwanowicz, leader of Environmental Advocates of New York.

Stephen Williams is a Gazette reporter. The opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. He can be reached at 885-6705 or swilliams@dailygazette.net.

 
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