Published in the Bergen Record, Monday, October 30, 2006
Funding park repairs
By COLLEEN DISKIN
State officials have finally found money in the budget to fix up New Jersey's parks, where deteriorating historical monuments, rutted walking trails, leaking roofs and broken restrooms have gone untended for years.
The only hitch: Voters must give them permission to spend it.
A question on the Nov. 7 ballot asks voters to approve transferring surplus funds from a program to remove underground storage tanks into an account that could pay for at least some of the building and maintenance needs of parks.
It would provide about $15 million a year for the next decade and possibly double that in the years that follow -- all without raising taxes.
The measure is being hailed by Democrats and Republicans alike as the best hope for solving a funding crisis in the state parks. For several years, nothing has been budgeted for park repairs. The result is a backlog of more than $250 million worth of repairs and renovations.
"This, for the first time, would create a stable source of funding for park maintenance and repairs," said Pola Galie, an activist for the Outdoor Recreation Alliance. The group was formed largely to persuade the public to vote "Yes" on Ballot Question 2.
How the money would be divvied up has yet to be determined. Lawmakers said maintenance and renovation work at county parks would be eligible for some of the funds. But since the state already has a long list of needs at its own parks, the money would be likely to go fast each year, advocates said.
"In the beginning, this is only going to bring in $15 million a year," said Bill Foelsch, director of the New Jersey Recreation and Parks Association. "So it's going to take a while to address the backlog."
On the list for repairs in North Jersey: a new roof for Ringwood Manor and work on buildings at Skylands Manor that are so structurally unsafe that they have had to be boarded up. Rust has formed on pedestrian bridges, and potholes plague roads at the Palisades Interstate Park. Restrooms and changing rooms have had to be closed at Wawayanda State Park for lack of money to repair them.
Meanwhile, many new projects have stalled for lack of money, such as a plan to transform an old junkyard into a museum and gateway park at New Bridge Landing in River Edge. A new park above Paterson's Great Falls also has been waiting for funds.
The Legislature managed to find $9 million in the current state budget to make some capital improvements at state parks. In deciding how to spend the $9 million, the state tried to target projects where history or valuable park assets were in danger of being lost, said Lisa Jackson, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.
The state park at New Bridge Landing is slated to get a slice of that $9 million. The details will be announced Thursday, Jackson said.
If voters approve the funding plan on the ballot, the first task for the DEP will be to prioritize the long list of needs, Jackson said. Some examples of immediate needs could include saving bulkheads at Liberty State Park that are in danger of being swallowed by the Hudson River, or replacing septic systems that are about to fail at other park properties.
Jim Hall, superintendent of Palisades Interstate Park, said his agency has seen some of its requests for major repairs go unfunded for five years in a row.
Just a year ago, the park was forced to close several of its attractions in Alpine, including the Kearney House, the pavilion and the boat basin, for about six months after an underground electrical line failed and had to be completely replaced, Hall said.
"We ended up having to apply for emergency money to get that fixed," Hall said. "But that's something that could have been avoided if there was a regular pot of money available for repairs. Right now, it's like you have to wait for an emergency situation before something can get fixed."
At Fort Lee Historical Park -- located at the southern tip of the Palisades Park system -- the battlements that Revolutionary War soldiers built out of earth and logs are starting to fall apart for lack of money to reinforce them, Hall said.
The legislation authorizing the ballot question passed both houses unanimously.
Advocates say their only challenge is to make sure voters understand the measure wouldn't raise taxes or dip into their pocketbooks in some other way.
The money would come from an existing corporate business tax currently dedicated to a fund to help residents pay for the removal of leaking underground storage tanks.
The need for that fund has waned and a surplus has existed for several years, said Elaine Makatura, a DEP spokeswoman. The surplus is expected to continue to increase in the coming years, possibly growing by $32 million a year by 2016. If voters approve rededicating the money for park use, the move will be permanent.
While it has the support of nearly all of the state's environmental groups, the initiative is far from being seen as a fix-all for the state's parks.
Lawmakers and advocates say they also need to pump billions more dollars into the nearly depleted Garden State Preservation Trust, which awards grants for preservation efforts and park improvements.
For that, they'll have to go to voters again in 2007.
Link to online story.
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.