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NJ - Budget cuts doom state parks to disrepair

Sep 25, 2016

The sweat dripped onto the collar of Frank Dyer’s half-open jeans shirt in the fields around Skylands Manor in Ringwood State Park as he and three other volunteers cleared brush and spread mulch in a sprawling lilac garden. It was punishing work on a July day when temperatures touched 90 before noon, and many workers were retired seniors. But as money dedicated to maintaining and improving state parks dwindles amid mammoth budget gaps, the work by Dyer — a rangy, 75-year-old retired chemist — and his compatriots has become more necessity than luxury. After all, if volunteers like them didn’t do this labor, who would? Photos: Funding cuts to state parks have left them struggling to keep up But there are some projects they just can’t do, like replacing the historic Carriage House Visitor Center’s cedar-shingled roof, which rots under a quilt of damp moss, or paving the patched and potholed main road. For that, you need professionals and lots of money — the roof itself will cost at least $90,000 — but there’s no cash in state coffers. Fortunately, at least for the roof repair, again there’s private help: The nonprofit New Jersey Botanical Garden/Skylands Association will pick up the expense with donations. It’s a familiar scenario statewide, where park staff and volunteer groups strain to perform basic repairs and maintain infrastructure despite cuts to the state Natural and Historic Resources capital budget. Why that fund has shrunk — and how to reverse that — is a point of contention.

Some environmental groups blame a voter-approved 2014 constitutional amendment. It shifted revenues from the state’s Corporation Business Tax away from capital improvements. Instead, they bolster Green Acres, a taxpayer-financed program that has preserved more than 650,000 acres of open space in its 55 years. But others, including NJ Keep It Green, a coalition of more than 180 environmental groups that advocated for the 2014 amendment, say the funding has been a pittance compared to what parks actually need: state estimates put the backlog of capital improvements at about $400 million. They argue that the situation is the result of decades of budgetary neglect by governors who prioritized funding their own projects instead. And the governor’s office blames the Legislature, which it said “continues to ignore the governor’s warnings” against repurposing business tax money that supported “many crucial environmental programs.” Meanwhile, attendance at state parks and historical sites has slowly increased: The Department of Environmental Protection, which manages the 445,000 acres of state-owned parks, forests and recreational areas, expects nearly 18.3 million visitors this year, a million more than in 2014. State Sen. Bob Smith, a Piscataway Democrat who sponsored the bill that placed the 2014 amendment on the public ballot, called it the “holy grail” the state’s environmental movement had been looking for: a dedicated money source for continued open-space purchases.

Approved by a 65-35 percent margin by voters, the amendment earmarked about $80 million each year from the Corporation Business Tax to finance open space, farmland, and historic preservation. That total will rise in 2020 when the tax allocation increases. Some environmentalists say the amendment had an unintended but severe impact on the Natural and Historic Resources capital budget. The budget had been replenished each year from the same tax, a dedication secured in a prior, 2006 voter-approved constitutional amendment. That amendment was to provide a “reliable and stable source of funding” that would enable the DEP to make “long-term investments in the state park system,” according to a 2013 draft of the state’s Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan. It provided about $15 million annually, and would have doubled to $32 million in 2016. But the 2014 measure ended that dedication and canceled the planned-for increase. That, said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, has redirected money to land acquisition instead of capital improvements at parks. “We’re buying farm fields out in Hunterdon County that the public can’t use instead of fixing state parks that the public will use,” Tittel said. Mark Texel, head of the New Jersey Division of Parks and Forestry, called it a “massive blow” and said in a Facebook post soon after the vote that it was “the darkest day I have faced in my professional career.” “We had a plan to really tackle some of these major capital projects that had been deferred for many, many years,” Texel said. “And we were making progress. Suddenly now our capital budget is having the legs cut out from underneath it. … It was disappointing, I admit. I was very disappointed.”


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