Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Adirondack Impacts of Andrew Cuomo’s Budget

Here are some of the Adirondack Park related highlights from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2011-12 Executive Budget, his first plan for closing the state’s estimated $11 billion deficit.

Cuomo’s budget plan would maintain the state’s Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) at $134 million, the same spending level as in the current budget, but would further reduce the budgets of the Adirondack Park Agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation, close several prisons (possibly including some in the North Country), and disband the Tug Hill Commission.

“We have to consider this a victory,” said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) said in a statement about EPF funding. “Under the circumstances, it could have been much worse. Deep cuts in the EPF would have had a substantial and long-lasting impact on New York’s natural resources. Fortunately, Governor Cuomo had the wisdom and foresight not to do that.”

The EPF was created in during a recession in 1993 as a way eliminate bond-acts as the primary funding source for major environmental capital projects. The fund pays for environmental programs such as land purchases and easements for open-space protection, eradication of invasive species, municipal recycling programs and transfer stations, landfill caps and methane extraction, water quality protection and waterfront revitalization. The EPF is funded by a portion of the state’s tax on Teal Estate Transfer Tax (RETT). In 2008, the RETT generated more than $1 billion, with about $200 million being directed into the EPF. The Adirondack Mountain Club, the Adirondack Council, and other environmental conservations organizations have called for a return to the 2008 level.

The governor’s proposal would leave most EPF funding categories essentially unchanged. The plan calls for $17.5 million for open-space protection, down slightly from fiscal 2010-11, and $16.2 million for state land stewardship and public access, $3.8 million for invasives, and $2.9 million for water quality.

Coumo’s plans are considered a stark contrast to those of Gov. David Paterson, who cut environmental and parks spending repeatedly over the past two years, both in his budget bills and in revisions made mid-year.

Cuomo’s budget cuts 10 percent from the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), in Ray Brook, and the Olympic Regional Development Authority, in Lake Placid; the APA is already below its authorized staffing level so it’s believed that this new cut may not cause the elimination of any further positions but could more likely reduce public services. Five years ago, the APA it had 72 employees, today it has fewer than 55. The APA was forced to close the Adirondack Visitor Interpretative Centers at Paul Smiths and Newcomb in 2010.

Cuts to the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPHRP, who oversees sites like the forts at Crown point, and the John Brown homestead in North Elba) were modest as these agencies have suffered greatly under previous budget cuts. Five percent cuts are called for at DEC, and six percent at OPRHP.

The Tug Hill Commission, slated for elimination under Cuomo’s budget, is overseen by a board of nine unpaid volunteers, all residents of the region, appointed by state politicians. The Commission was created in 1972. Cuomo’s plan would eliminate all the commission’s paid staff, including nine staff specialists and two support staff who work out of the central office in Watertown. Seven part-time and full-time employees work out of their homes when not traveling throughout the region. According to the Commission’s website, it’s programs and services are directed at “strengthening local decision making, saving money through information sharing and training, and help in coordinating and raising funds for community improvement projects”. The commission focuses on local technical assistance (including a Geographic Information System (GIS)), land use planning, community development, and natural resource management.

Cuomo also hopes to eliminate as many as 3,500 prison beds from the state’s prison system, about ten percent of the state’s minimum and medium security facilities. The cuts are expected to save $72 million dollars next year.

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