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Budget for parks is hurt by deficit

Patrick unable to fulfill pledge

As a gubernatorial candidate last year, Deval Patrick delighted environmentalists with a pledge to spend an extra $10 million his first year in office to begin fixing the state's long-neglected parks system.

But to the dismay of park advocates across the state, the budget Patrick released last week only increased funding for parks by about $740,000, according to a budget analysis by environmental groups.

"We understand the governor had a difficult budget this year, but we are disappointed he is not fulfilling his commitment," said Thomas J. Philbin , associate director of the Conservation and Recreation Campaign , which works to provide access to public lands. "It is critically important to the vitality of the state to have the quality of life and amenities these parks provide."

Patrick said last week he regretted that he had not been able to bolster parks funding more, and that it was one of the difficult choices he had to make in confronting a budget gap of more than $1 billion. Ian Bowles , secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said yesterday that the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) remains a top priority, and that Patrick's budget would give it more flexibility to focus on its core mission of caring for the state's beaches, parks, and campgrounds.

"Our goal at the end is to have each and every park in the Commonwealth be something everyone can be proud of," he said.

The state's park system, the sixth largest in the nation, was once celebrated for its varied and well-maintained parks. But in the last 15 years, Massachusetts has accumulated a backlog of maintenance problems that would cost $1.2 billion to fix. Last year, Governing magazine ranked the state 48th out of 50 in per capita spending on parks and 50th in parks spending as a percentage of personal income. Environmentalists say parks across the state are plagued with crumbling infrastructure, trash buildup, and insufficient staffing.

Patrick's budget for fiscal year 2008 would spend $89.5 million on parks, according to the environmental groups' analysis.

Tad Ames , president of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council , a nonprofit conservation group, said there is now "almost a palpable sense of abandonment in our state parks." He cited the Pittsfield State Forest , where campgrounds had been neglected and unmonitored use of off-road vehicles had created an intimidating atmosphere for visitors, he said .

In 2003 , Governor Mitt Romney moved to streamline parks management, creating the DCR by merging two agencies, the Metropolitan District Commission , which handled parks, recreation facilities, and parkways in Greater Boston, and the Department of Environmental Management , which took care of state land outside the metro area.

But Bowles said the merger never fully integrated the two agencies, and that the DCR remains burdened by a "duplicative" administrative structure as well as a variety of distracting responsibilities -- such as regulating dams, running state piers, and maintaining Storrow Drive.

"The governor wanted to review all of that and understand how do we refocus this incredibly important agency on its core mission, which is to deliver the best recreational experience for the hundreds of thousands of residents of the Commonwealth who use these parks and beaches each year," Bowles said.

Patrick's budget would give the department more flexibility in how it spends , Bowles said, and would redirect $3.6 million in legislative earmarks -- money set aside by the Legislature for specific parks programs -- to the broader goal of park maintenance and repairs.

James R. Gomes , president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts , said he recognized the need to reorganize the DCR, but , "I don't think that's a good reason not to invest in the parks now."

Gomes and other environmentalists said they sympathized with Patrick's plight. When he said he would increase parks funding by $10 million, candidate Patrick believed there would be a large surplus when he took office, not a deficit, they said.

"So we'll give the governor a rain check based on a tight budget this year, but we'll expect him to make good on his pledge in future years," said Gomes, who was co-chairman on the Patrick transition team's environment and energy working group.

Lora Wondolowski , executive director of the Massachusetts League of Environmental Voters , which endorsed Patrick in the general election, said she thought the governor genuinely cared about the environment, and hoped he would follow through on his promise as soon as he could.

"It's early in the administration, but my organization will hold him accountable on environmental issues," she added.

Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com., Daley at bdaley@globe.com.

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