A scene from Nissequogue River State Park, which may close...

A scene from Nissequogue River State Park, which may close due to proposed budget cuts. Credit: Newsday, 2007 / Karen Wiles Stabile

When the state parks department responded last week to a proposed budget cut by threatening to close 10 parks on Long Island, it reinforced a fact that people may not often consider: Most parks lose money.

Even though more than 2 million people visited the 10 parks in Nassau and Suffolk identified for possible closure, they all operated at deficits and last year lost more than $1 million combined.

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Four of the 10 parks would remain open if the Legislature approves the governor's proposal to transfer $5 million from the state's Environmental Protection Fund to the parks department operating budget, an idea that so far faces deep skepticism from politicians and park advocates. Opponents say the fund was set up for land acquisition and other functions, but specifically not for operating expenses. Those four parks were the last to be added to the closing list and so would be the first to be restored.

Seeking to close the state's $8- billion budget gap, Gov. David A. Paterson has recommended a $29-million cut for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, leading to the parks agency's proposal to shut down 55 parks and historic sites statewide.

Reasons to close

While attendance and financial performance were critical considerations in targeting the 10 facilities and others across the state, other reasons included some parks' geographic remoteness, their similarity to other nearby parks and that at some parks, there's just not that much to do.

"There was also an issue of constituency: They wanted to not lock out any particular constituency or demographic," said Robin Dropkin, executive director of Parks & Trails New York, a statewide advocacy group. Sunken Meadow State Park, for example, is often cited as bulletproof due to its heavy usage from a wide range of users, including some from New York City.

A few parks, primarily beach or golf parks such as Robert Moses and Bethpage, make a profit. But most are more like Nissequogue River State Park - on the hit list - where 87,516 people visited last year. The park has one field for sports, but it is mostly used for hiking and paddling, and boaters keep their craft at two marinas at the former Kings Park Psychiatric Hospital property.

The state allocated $466,103 to run the park this year and projects a loss of $310,614. That breaks down to a loss of $3.55 for each visitor.

Nissequogue was vulnerable for a number of reasons. It is a relatively new park, not well known, hard to find and has limited facilities. It also has unusually high security and maintenance costs because of the many empty buildings spread over the large hospital grounds, and it is very close to Sunken Meadow.

Officials with the state parks department would not discuss how individual parks made the list, but park sources cited the following explanations (other than high operating costs and low attendance):

Orient Beach is very remote at the tip of the North Fork.

For Brookhaven, Caleb Smith, Cold Spring Harbor, Trail View, Hempstead Lake and Valley Stream as well as closing Connetquot on weekdays, the issue was almost exclusively attendance relative to operating cost.

Heckscher made the list despite high attendance and heavy use by diverse cultural and user groups because officials needed to close one large park to meet their budget cut target. Closing the remaining state pools - at Jones Beach, Heckscher and Montauk Downs - was recommended because of very high expenses for staff and maintenance.

The Brentwood recommendation has park observers stumped. The state spent $9 million to develop it last year. There is speculation that it was chosen primarily for political reasons: to generate support for the governor's environmental protection fund proposal.


Saving some sites

Besides, Brentwood, Heckscher, Hempstead Lake and Valley Stream would be saved if lawmakers approve the governor's plan to transfer the $5 million from the environmental fund.

However many parks close, all of their operating costs won't be recouped (or counted as "savings," as the parks department phrases it).

"What are we really saving by shutting down a park?" asked Bernadette Castro, former state parks commissioner and now a member of the advisory Long Island state park commission. Security, maintenance, heating and other expenses will reduce potential savings, she noted.

Parks spokeswoman Eileen Larrabee said no calculations have been made yet of the savings going forward from the closure of the parks. "We are in the business of running parks, not closing them," she said. "This is new and not a perfect science."

Herbert Balin, chairman of the Long Island park commission, said financial analyses of park closings are overlooking another important element - "the intangible value for the people of Long Island who live near or get to enjoy a park. "

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