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Audit: State parks safe, but in need of work

Report suggests multiyear plan

Wednesday, September 19, 2012
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Volunteers help to develop a new section of a trail in Saratoga Spa State Park on I Love My Park Day on May 5.
Volunteers help to develop a new section of a trail in Saratoga Spa State Park on I Love My Park Day on May 5.

— At John Boyd Thacher State Park in the Helderbergs, a public swimming pool has been closed since 2007, so long that even the chain-link fence put up around it is deteriorating.

At Niagara Falls, the state’s most-visited state park, a temporary pedestrian bridge has been installed after the original was deemed “unsound.”

Those are two examples of deteriorated infrastructure throughout the state parks system cited in a new audit released Tuesday by state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

“Our visits confirmed that many infrastructure issues exist throughout the park system,” the audit states.

Some of the most serious infrastructure issues are being addressed with an $89 million appropriation in this year’s state budget, though parks advocates called for a multiyear approach to address all the issues.

The auditors give credit to staff at the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation for their handling of deteriorated park infrastructure, but recommend that long-term planning for repairs or alternatives be started.

“It is clear that the more time passes before these issues are addressed, the higher the cost will likely be,” the audit said.

To conduct the audit, the comptroller’s office visited 33 state parks and historic sites this spring. They said they confirmed what parks officials have said — that the parks have a $1.1 billion backlog of infrastructure projects.

In some cases, auditors said, park employees have made their own repairs, while in other instances they have simply cordoned off deteriorated areas to prevent public access.

“Overall, the state parks and historic sites we visited were well maintained and their facilities provided a reasonably safe and clean atmosphere for patrons to enjoy,” the audit stated.

The state parks office oversees 178 state parks and 33 historic sites, popular facilities that in 2011 had 57 million visitors. Parks officials said visitation is on a path to surpass that rate in 2012.

“We’re pleased that the Comptroller’s Office generally found that the parks are safe,” said Dan Keefe, a spokesman for the state parks.

A private parks advocacy group based in Albany said the report backs what it has said for years about the conditions in state parks.

“I think this reiterates what we’ve known for a long time now, that there is a critical need for infrastructure improvements,” said Laura DiBetta, parks program director for Parks & Trails New York. “At this point, every park and historic site has some infrastructure need.”

The comptroller’s visits were conducted this spring, at a time when state funding for the parks agency had been cut for several consecutive years because of fiscal woes.

The park system’s operating budget, which was $201 million in 2009-10, was cut to $183 million last year and $182 million in the current state budget.

But the 2012-13 state budget passed in April included $89 million for infrastructure improvements at parks and historic sites — money that parks officials said has been leveraged into about $143 million with federal, private and other state funds.

“This is the single largest infusion of capital dollars in the history of New York State parks,” state parks officials said in a response included in the audit. “This investment in New York’s parks system will enhance the visitor experience and enable our state parks to re-emerge after years of decline.”

Keefe said safety was a key consideration in deciding which projects to address this year.

Of the new state infrastructure money, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has already announced $6.8 million for projects in parks in the Saratoga/Capital District region. State parks including John Boyd Thacher, Grafton Lakes in Grafton, Peebles Island in Waterford, Moreau Lake in Moreau and Saratoga Spa State Park are all receiving some of the money.

Saratoga Spa State Park is seeing $1.5 million to resurface of the Geyser Loop Road and Columbia parking area, improvements to the Route 50 trailway, and other infrastructure repairs. Moreau Lake is seeing about $600,000 in paving improvements.

Peebles Island State Park, at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, expects to receive $3 million to rehabilitate and improve park facilities and infrastructure, according to the governor’s announcement.

DiBetta said there are other parks around the state that need water and sewer improvements, and parks with deteriorated swimming pools, bath houses, and other buildings, all of which could become safety hazards if problems aren’t addressed.

“We’re hoping this will become a multiyear investment program,” she said of the governor’s initiative. “The report reiterates that there is a continuing need.”

 
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