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State budget hits parks: fees, fie, foe, fum

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Crunched accordion-like under pressing deficits, the state budget process is making a lot of interest groups wheeze. Governor George Pataki insists he won't raise taxes as the state faces a $12 billion shortfall next fiscal year, and he's committed to tax cuts already scheduled; the promise or threat will soon constrict things like the public schools and the State University system. The governor's preference for "user fees," however, means that de facto taxes will rise.

            No wonder organizations are scrambling to comprehend the newly released, exquisitely detailed budget documents. Bill Ferris, an Albany-based legislative lobbyist for AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, says his organization is grappling with Medicaid (Pataki would cut $1 billion) and a potential 10 percent increase in patient-borne costs for home-based care.

            Both types of cut would really hit seniors where they hurt. But seniors are facing pinpricks, too, which may seem small but will surely add up to a lot of pain over time --- especially for those on low or fixed incomes.

Look at what looms for environmental programs and recreation.

            The governor wants to increase all sorts of fees in the state parks and similar recreational facilities. Some of the proposed hikes are substantial when expressed as percentages. For example, under Pataki's proposal, small-boat registration fees, which vary with boat-length, would double, though the three-year registrations would still be in the low-to-mid two figures. (He proposed the same rate of increase back in 2001, as well.) And what goes for climbing in your powerboat goes for driving into your state park, too.

            Chris McKenna, spokesperson for Assemblymember Charlie Nesbitt, a Republican-Conservative who represents western Monroe County, says the Governor's budget includes a proposal to increase park [entrance] fees. McKenna says no one knows how big the increase might be. "One thing you have to keep in mind is that the final budget rarely looks like what the governor proposes in January," he says.

            Right now the basic vehicle entrance fee at Monroe County's only full-fledged state park, Hamlin Beach, is $6; at Letchworth State Park, the entrance fee is $5, since Letchworth doesn't have anything like Hamlin's lakefront swimming facilities. Of course, higher charges apply to campsites, cabins, and so forth --- for example, winter cabins in Letchworth go for $62.50 a night, with a two-night minimum. But some state parklands without amenities and services, like the Harriet Hollister Spencer State Recreation Area near Honeoye, don't charge any fee.

            Whatever happens at popular destinations like Hamlin Beach State Park will affect a wide range of users, including low- and moderate-income Rochesterians who go there for picnicking, swimming, and boat access to Lake Ontario.

            But the park has users from its own neighborhood, too. Take the residents of the town of Hamlin, a predominantly rural and agricultural community in the northwest corner of Monroe County. As "hosts," these townspeople feel they have a special relationship with what they see as their park.

            Ed Evans, a Hamlinite who's in his 12th year on the town board, describes this complex relationship, starting with dollars and cents. He wonders what would have happened if Hamlin Beach's long shoreline had never become public parkland. Were that shoreline private, he says, it would sport luxury homes and high tax assessments.

            But Evans, a retired high school science teacher, is more concerned about reality, especially as it affects Hamlin's low-income residents. These are the folks, says Evans, for whom state park fees are a real issue --- and for whom a $6 entrance charge is plenty high enough.

            "It has been a concern of mine for years," says Evans, who's also town liaison to and a member of the Hamlin Senior Citizens group. "Every single day I go up there [to the park] for my two-mile walk." He scrimps by buying an Empire Passport (currently $59 a year, $50 for a second vehicle), which allows unlimited day-use entry to all state parks and rec facilities. But Hamlinites who can't buy a passport upfront "are discouraged from going there in the best part of the day," says Evans. They stay away from the park, he says, until the toll gate closes at 6 p.m. and admission is free.

            Evans favors a reduced fee for citizens of Hamlin. "Every year," he says, "I write to state [representatives] to please prepare some legislation which would enable people who live in a town with a state park to have a token fee of $1." He recalls that the late Ralph Quattrociocchi, who as state senator represented Hamlin and other parts of Monroe County, once floated legislation to this effect. Evans believes a resident bonus would actually be a revenue enhancer. "If [people] went 10 times more a month," he says, "that would make up for two tickets."

Many environmentalists, though, oppose this sort of home rule or privilege --- though they sympathize with low-income park users, as well.

            "Fee increases for campsites and launching your boat, they're tough in tough times," says Neil Woodworth, the Adirondack Mountain Club's counsel in Albany. Nonetheless, he says, New York's state parks "are on the affordable end of recreational opportunities" and "are still some of the most affordable in the nation --- very reasonable considering the quality."

            Nationally, the picture is mixed: Pennsylvania, for example, charges no fee for entering a park or mere picnicking; other states charge varying amounts. But what about reduced fees for Hamlinites and other close neighbors of other state parks? "Frankly," says Woodworth, "that would lead to all kinds of inequities."

            In the Adirondacks and Catskills, says Woodworth, the state is already a "major taxpayer," pumping money into communities with large state landholdings. (The situation is different elsewhere in the state. Hamlin Beach State Park, for example, pays nothing to the town of Hamlin --- though, as Woodworth points out, there's a financial spillover from park users who patronize the town's restaurants and gas stations and pay local sales tax.)

            Anyway, the Adirondack Mountain Club is frying bigger budgetary fish right now. Woodworth says the group is pleased that Governor Pataki wants to maintain the $125 million allocation for the Environmental Protection Fund. The downside, says Woodworth, is that Pataki also would use about $30 million from the Fund for "general account" expenditures; this, he says, runs contrary to the Fund's purpose, which is support for land acquisition, park development, pollution control, and so forth. (It could also have some bearing on fee levels.)

            Back in northwest Monroe County, too, some items are cutting both ways.

            "This little bitty town of Hamlin is very dependent on [state and other government] grants," says Ed Evans. "We have one of the highest percentages of seniors citizens and schoolkids in Monroe County. We work hard to keep the tax rate low... We just got a grant to build a new justice building. Our fair share of the project was done in labor." The new justice building, actually a rehabbed rec center, cost $100,000, he says.

            Evans worries that state budget cuts will hit vulnerable Hamlinites hard. The town government, he says, has been planning to build a new community center. "It isn't going to happen" if state grants dry up, he says. Right now Hamlin's seniors meet once a month, he says, in space the town rents at the local VFW hall. "It'd be nice if we had a place where they could go and talk every day."

            Hamlin Beach State Park comes up again as Evans reveals another thing on his mind.

            For years, he says, he worked to get a needed retaining wall built to protect the Yanty Marsh at Hamlin Beach from high Lake Ontario water levels that threatened vital bird habitat. State and federal agencies completed a long section of wall several years ago. Evans says more wall is needed to protect the marsh adequately --- but with the budget heading south, that's not in the cards now.

            You might say the science teacher sees fluid dynamics at work once more: "Here go our long-range plans," he says, "right down the tubes."

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