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Advocates split over proposal to prevent park closures

Park advocates are split over state lawmakers' plan to use capital improvement money to prevent the closing of 91 sites this year.

A Senate version of the 2010-11 state budget would transfer $11.5 million from the parks' capital account to the operating account. The money would be repaid by selling bonds paid off with park fees collected in the future, according to the Senate plan adopted Monday.

The fees - $22 million this year - have gone into a capital account called the State Park Infrastructure Fund, created in 1992 to address years of deferred maintenance. None of this money has ever been used for nonmaintenance purposes, and the move troubles some legislators and park advocates.

That concern spurred the Assembly on Monday night to drop consideration of using SPIF funds as a component of its plan to prevent closings. The Assembly now advocates transferring the $11 million from elsewhere in the budget and offsetting that by raising park fees $2.1 million more than the $4 million the agency has planned and borrowing any further needed funds through the state General Fund.

Borrowing capital funds from a park system with an estimated $650-million maintenance backlog troubles park advocates, but most say it's a step worth taking to keep the parks open.

Not Herbert Balin, chairman of the Long Island State Park, Recreation and Historic Preservation Commission, a state-appointed advisory group, however. "Borrowing against the future is very bad," he said.

David Reisfield, president of the Long Island Greenbelt Trail Conference, said, "I'm good with it as a one-time thing. These are strange times."

Shawn McConnell of Parks & Trails New York, an Albany-based advocacy group, said, "It's not ideal but we're in a crisis situation." He said more money would be coming into SPIF in the future as the economy improved, so capital spending ultimately shouldn't be hurt.

Al Caccese, executive director of Audubon New York and a former chief deputy parks commissioner, said, "I hate the thought of having to take it away from future capital projects. But on the other hand I think it would be a tragedy to have the 91 parks close. Bonding for this one-time purpose while at the same time we try to identify new sources of revenue for the future is what we need to do."

Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket), chairman of the parks committee, said his house dropped consideration of tapping the SPIF on Monday night.

"I'm very happy," said Englebright, who added it now seems certain no parks will close.

But Senate parks committee chairman José Serrano (D-Bronx), said the upper chamber viewed borrowing against SPIF this one time as the best of various bad options. Because of the public outcry, "I doubt strongly that we will be faced with another budget where the governor is suggesting closing 91 parks."

Whether capital funds will be part of the solution for keeping the parks operating now has to be hashed out among the Senate, Assembly and Gov. David A. Paterson. They face an April 1 deadline for the adoption of a new budget.

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