State park funding suffers silently

Cutbacks taking toll on maintenance, staff

By Allison McKinnonThe Sun Chronicle

Officials from the Department of Conservation and Recreation say that no matter how little or how much the state’s environmental budget cuts will be, Massasoit State Park in East Taunton will have “severely limited to zero staffing” during the next fiscal year.

“We’re still operating on the budget cuts of the last two years, where we lost almost $30 million,” Commissioner Ed Lambert said. “Certainly this latest round of cuts is going to continue to have a negative impact on Massasoit and other parks, but this budget season will be nothing new.”

Budget cuts will also hit the already diminished Department of Environmental Protection, which lost 170 positions last year. The staff could face another 25 percent cut this year.

Often out of the public eye, state recreation and environmental activity, from the maintenance of state parks to the environmental monitoring and permitting, has suffered quietly through a succession of budget cuts over the past several years.

“It’s a bad recession and everyone is taking a hit, so it’s hard for the environment to come front and center,” said Jennifer Ryan, legislative director of Mass Audubon. “Clearly the other issues are important, too. I think the environment just doesn’t have the human face those issues do to gain as much support.”

The budget woes are likely to get worse. Lambert said the department already has about 25 percent less staffing than two years ago, and although the House of Representatives voted to restore about $700,000 to the department for state and urban parks, that leaves a funding gap of almost $600,000 in 2012.

“We’re hopeful that the final budget will have some additional funding to allow us to provide the basic level of services, he said. “At the end of the day, we’re more concerned about the public having access to our services and facilities.”

Lambert said cuts to the administrative line item were not restored, however, and have gotten so severe that the department cannot effectively oversee the almost 1,000 partnerships with private entities that often operate skating rinks and swimming pools.

“People often don’t think well of administration, but in an agency like ours, where we increasingly turn to leases, permits and contractors to provide services that we can’t because of cuts, we need managers,” he said. “When you’re cutting administration, you’re still impacting services.”

Ryan said the conservation department will have to scale back hours of access to parks and pools if they want to keep them open.

“When people think of Massachusetts as being a very ‘green’ state and very progressive, they don’t often realize that we’ve cut the Department of Environmental Protection by 40 percent in the last 10 years, and lost a lot of staff in other agencies” she said. “There’s a false security that we’re doing really well, when in fact we’ve scaled back dramatically.”

Ryan pointed to findings from Boston think tank Beacon Hill Institute, which found that while Massachusetts spends half the national average of per capita spending – about $63 per state resident – it operates the nation’s ninth largest state parks system.

“The real irony about our situation is that probably when people need us most because they don’t have the money to take their family to Disney World, we’re actually cutting staffing at facilities because we don’t have the funds,” Lambert said.

Cities and towns could also see the results of the budget cuts up close, Ryan said.

Limited staffing could mean limited access for local officials who need to get into state parks to remove hazardous waste or conduct water sampling and air monitoring.

The Department of Environmental Protection is facing similar staffing issues. Commissioner Kenneth Kimmell said that although some funding has been restored to the various environmental agencies, there is still a long fight ahead in the budget process.

“We’re making a strong case to the Senate to avoid layoffs, but in the worst case scenario we would have to decrease staffing again,” he said.

His department lost 170 employees in fiscal year 2011.

If the $43.6 million budget the House passed is the final number, Kimmell said about 25 percent of the staff in charge of issuing permits for wetlands development, air quality and sewer work would be cut.

Kimmell said decreased staffing would hurt economic growth because it would further slow the already time-consuming process new businesses face for various license, permits and certification they need to move into the state.

“Our responsibilities have increased rather than decreased over time,” he said. “For example, new federal mandates are about to kick in for cities and towns that require a more comprehensive job of managing storm water. (We) are going to need to step in and help them.”

The Senate Ways and Means Committee plans to release its version of the environmental budget in the next few weeks.

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