As budget crisis continues, some state parks fees jump 33%

A golfer takes advantage of the beautiful day

A golfer takes advantage of the beautiful day at Bethpage State Park Golf Course. (April 1, 2010) (Credit: Danielle Finkelstein)

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Admission and golf fees at some state parks increased by as much as 33 percent starting Saturday as Albany grapples with a huge budget deficit.

Fees at beaches will jump from $8 to $10 per vehicle. At "flagship" park facilities, including 10 on Long Island, the entrance fee will increase from $6 or $7 per vehicle to $8.

Golf fees at the Bethpage Black Course will rise by $15 per round starting April 13, while other courses at Bethpage, Hither Hills and Sunken Meadow will increase up to $3 per round starting April 9.

Faced with a proposed $29-million cut in its budget, the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation hopes to raise $4 million from the fee hike.

"Without this $4 million in anticipated revenue, we would be facing additional closures and reduced services," parks spokeswoman Eileen Larrabee said. The agency is charging the higher fees on the first weekend that fees are collected at most parks to maximize income, she said.

The move comes as Gov. David A. Paterson and the State Legislature remain unable to agree on a 2010-11 budget. Paterson has pushed for the fee increases. He has proposed closing 91 parks and historic sites, including 10 on the Island, as part of a plan to close a $9.2-billion deficit. The higher fees will not affect the proposed closings, park officials said.

The budget deadline was Thursday and implementing the fee hike - together with this week's suspension of funding for highway and bridge projects - adds pressure on lawmakers to reach a budget deal soon, fiscal experts said.

Though legal, implementation of the fee hikes ahead of a finalized budget prompted bipartisan outrage in the State Senate.

In the Assembly, however, the chairman of the parks committee joined park advocates in lauding the action. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket) said with New York's fiscal woes it's politically unlikely lawmakers could keep all of the parks open and also rescind the fee hikes.

"Keeping the parks open is a heroic act in itself, and it presumes keeping the higher fees that were built into the budget," Englebright said.

"If the choice is between paying an extra buck or so to keep the parks open, most people I talk to have suggested that they would be willing to pay a little bit more," said Al Caccese, executive director of Audubon New York.

Senators Thursday blasted the parks department. Sen. John Sampson of Brooklyn, the Democratic chief, called on Paterson to resume budget talks to avoid fee hikes. He added lawmakers and Paterson must "develop serious solutions to the state's economic crisis without making it more difficult for families to enjoy their parks."

Sen. Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), the minority leader, called the action a "terrible decision as it gives false hope that by simply raising fees, somehow state parks will remain open. There are sufficient funds within a $135-billion budget to keep our parks open."

Matt Anderson, spokesman for Paterson's budget office, said charging the higher fees is legal in the absence of an approved budget but the agency cannot spend the money without legislative approval.

The higher fees weren't popular with visitors to Jones Beach Thursday. "It's crazy," said Amalia Pose, 57, of Baldwin, who added the cost of living on Long Island is already too expensive.

At Bethpage State Park, Pete Sollecito, 61, of Westbury, called the golf fee hikes excessive. "Everything else is going up, except my salary," he said.

With Chau Lam

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