The state won't hire any park police officers this year, because of budget cuts, and the Jones Beach July Fourth fireworks display may be in danger.
Tuesday, state parks Commissioner Carol Ash told legislators the decision made late last year to cancel the police academy for the third year in a row means police staffing this summer will be down 25 percent statewide - or 70 uniformed officers. Currently, there are 266 officers, down from July 2008 levels and a high of more than 500 full- and part-time officers in 2003.
Sources said that because of the expected shortage of officers, officials were mulling canceling the fireworks show that typically draws 275,000.
The sources also said several small Long Island parks would be likely to close by the summer. Ash said only that "there is not a list currently" of parks that might be shut.
The closings of some of the 178 parks and 35 historic sites are subject to change when the legislature acts on the governor's proposed budget.
At a budget hearing Tuesday, Ash told legislators the proposed $29 million in parks cuts means "We will no longer be able to continue to operate all of the facilities and programs we currently administer."
Ash added that the budget includes 67 fewer full-time staff, for a total of 2,006. That follows a reduction of 265 positions since 2008-09. The budget proposes $32 million in capital rehabilitation projects, down from $70 million this year.
"I'm very disquieted about the budget and cuts that are disproportionate to the other agencies," Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket) told Ash. "In a recession, parks are even more [important] than in other times."
Ash told the legislators at the hearing that the cancellation of the police academy will lead to "operational impacts on our system," but refused to elaborate.
State Parks Police Chief Richard O'Donnell said "we are reviewing our deployment" of officers and trying to determine if there will be sufficient staffing to cover large events.
As the number of officers dropped in recent years, there has been disagreement between police unions and the state over whether there has been adequate security for Jones Beach concerts, other large events and even routine patrols.
The agency said arrests have dropped in the past three years from more than 2,102 to less than 2,000, and tickets issued from more than 30,002 to just under 28,000. Officials said they expected the numbers to drop because there are fewer officers. Donald Lavarge, vice president of Local 2796 of the state Parks Police Officers Union, said, "We believe we're at a crisis level with staffing."
But O'Donnell insisted "the parks are safe."
On the parks beat
Starting salary for a state park police officer is $44,000. The training academy is in Rensselaerville, outside Albany. The class lasts about 26 weeks. Recruits receive classroom training in criminal procedure, traffic law and state park law, and also hands-on training in firearms, first response, snowmobile operation, boat operation and rope rescue.
State Park Police staffing data
2004: Statewide: 256 police and 221 rangers. Total 477
LI: 68 police and 49 rangers. Total 117
2005: 291 police and 120 rangers. Total 411
75 police and 11 rangers. Total 86
2006: 293 police and 110 rangers. Total 403
74 police and 16 rangers. Total 90
2007: 306 police and 75 rangers. Total 381
78 police and 12 rangers. Total 90
2008: 306 police and 116 rangers. Total 422
80 police and 21 rangers. Total 101
2009: 274 police and 86 rangers. Total 360
68 police and 17 rangers. Total 85.
statewide: 263 police
LI Region: 67 police