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Estimate to fix state parks system leaps

Calculation comes as cuts announced

The estimated cost of fixing the state's neglected park system has jumped from $800 million to $1.1 billion, a top state official confirmed yesterday.

The new calculation came one day after Governor Mitt Romney announced $7 million in cuts to the state Department of Conservation and Recreation's maintenance budget as part of a $425 million spending freeze.

The department's commissioner, Stephen H. Burrington, said the higher figure is a result of a far more detailed audit earlier this year of the state's parks, forests, parkways, pools, hockey rinks, beaches, and historical sites. Still, he said, the $143 million dedicated to capital improvements this year has left the state in a good position to begin dealing with the backlog. The cuts, he said, include money earmarked for legislators' pet projects -- a frequent target of Romney's wrath -- and may not drastically impact the parks' maintenance budget.

But environmental groups say the cuts will be likely to add to the financial burden as the state fails to perform basic maintenance on properties. They point to decrepit bathhouses, potholed state parkways, and lack of staff at many state parks as evidence of the need for more, not less, maintenance money. While some money may be earmarked, they said, not all of it is.

"The whole reason why we have this enormous backlog is because we haven't been funding maintenance all along," said Kathy Abbott, a former state parks commissioner who has launched a nonprofit called the Conservation and Recreation Campaign to prod state officials to spend more on parklands. "We need to be increasing those maintenance dollars to avoid being right back where we are today 10 years from now."

Romney said he was forced to take the emergency action Friday after the Legislature transferred $450 million from a $2.1 billion "rainy day fund" that he did not support. The Legislature did not override his veto, leaving a deficit that Romney projects to be about $425 million.

In addition to the parks' maintenance budget, Romney sliced a wide range of environmental items, such as $154,590 for environmental law enforcement, $288,900 dedicated to helping communities provide cleaner water to residents, and $181,886 for hazardous waste cleanup. Environmental groups this weekend were assessing the impacts of the cuts.

Massachusetts parklands, the sixth-largest system in the nation, was once celebrated for its varied and well-maintained parks. But in the last 15 years, the state has failed to keep up with a growing backlog of leaking roofs on visitor centers, illegal dumping, and a slew of other maintenance issues, state officials say. Earlier this year, Governing magazine ranked the state 48 out of 50 for per-capita park funding and 50th when calculated as a percentage of personal income.

Some gains have been made. Burrington notes that the $143 million in capital funds this year is the highest since 1988 and if funding remains constant, his agency could work through the maintenance backlog in the next decade. Still, he acknowledges that the $89 million operating budget -- the target of Romney's cuts -- is suffering. That operating budget is among the lowest in 20 years.

"It's a challenge" to keep up with current maintenance, Burrington said.

Burrington said he shares Romney's concern about earmarks. About $40 million of the capital budget and close to $9 million of the DCR's operating budget has been spoken for by legislators for pet projects. Burrington and other agency officials want the money to be used for projects they -- not politicians -- determine are the most necessary to fix.

Beth Daley can be reached by e-mail at bdaley@globe.com

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