Massachusetts' inability to fund its parks and recreation agency is not a new story.
But years of chronic disinvestment is threatening to push the agency to a tipping point that the Massachusetts Stewardship Council – a group established by the Legislature to oversee several Department of Conservation and Recreation activities – says could result in widespread pool, park and other closures.
The council, chaired by Henry Lee, director of the Harvard Belfer Center’s Environment and Natural Resources Program, says in a letter to Senate President Therese Murray and House speaker Robert DeLeo the administration's budget proposal released recently “will place both the services provided by the agency and its assets in serious jeopardy.”
The letter notes that while every agency has been hit by budget cuts, the impact is particularly severe at DCR because it has had its budget slashed by more than 30 percent over the last two fiscal years.
The council says DCR will need at least $75 million in fiscal year 2012 to “avoid serious and visible shutdowns and service reductions. The administration's proposal gives DCR $71.4 million in 2012. Meanwhile, the House released its own budget a little over a week ago and proposes the DCR budget be set even lower at $69.8 million.
The letter, written by Lee, makes the important point that once parks are closed, research in his department shows the cost of re-opening closed state parks will be “significantly more than the money that was saved by closing them.”
It makes two immediate suggestions:
1. Allow permit DCR to keep 80 percent of any money it takes in, giving back 20 percent to the general treasury - a move that would give the agency an additional $2.7 million annually. Today, it keeps a little more than 60 percent.
2. Second, fully fund the cost of the State House rangers. Lee says said DCR "continues to be asked to take on responsibilities for which budgeted funds are insufficient." While staffing levels for State House rangers are determined by the Legislature, the dollar amount designated for it falls short by $700,000. "As a result, DCR must take that amount from its parks account to cover the shortfall, further eroding the sustainability of services the agency provides to the public,” the letter reads.
Richard K. Sullivan, secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs said today more people in a down economy are using state parks and services, so it makes sense to fund them adequately.
“Realistically, these are tough budget times…but I do think there needs to be a look at the cuts in the House and understand we saw a 30 percent increase of visitors at parks, beaches, campgrounds,’’ in 2010 compared to previous years, Sullivan said.
“Certainly some of that was providing great services and people in the field do a great job. But the economy played a large part - people are taking two or three day vacations close to home and the state parks provide a wonderful opportunity. I suspect we are going to see the same type of numbers this year given that gasoline is pushing $4 a gallon.
“At this point cuts do mean people,” Sullivan said.
Whitney Hatch, finance committee chair of the Stewardship Council said DCR's 2012 budget is bad enough under the administration's plan, but the House plan would mean "it is safe to assume that DCR will have to close more parks and pools than it is now considering,'' he said.
"DCR will have to lay off more full time and hire fewer summer employees. This is bad news not only for the state of our parks and recreation facilities but from the perspective of good full-time and summer season jobs," Hatch said.
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