Administration Hints at Plan to Put State Parks in the Black

DEP Commissioner Bob Martin says sustainable financing would avoid annual threat of shutdowns

Within the next month or so, the Christie administration is expected to unveil a long-term steady source of funding for New Jersey’s 39 state parks.

Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Bob Martin, although not offering details, yesterday told the Assembly Budget Committee the state cannot rely on general funds to support its parks, which typically needs $39 million in appropriations to remain open.

A long-term, sustainable financing plan would avoid the annual threat of a system-wide shutdown, a crisis that has occurred repeatedly in recent years as New Jersey’s fiscal problems have worsened.

“We must consider new ways of doing things and develop a new mode to make our parks self-sustaining,” Martin said in written remarks not orally delivered in his annual appearance before the budget panel.

Project Backlog

For years, conservationists and environmentalists have pressed various administrations to create a stable source of funding for the state’s parks, which have a backlog of more than $400 million in capital projects. Martin said some state assets and parks are literally falling apart because of a lack of funding.

The devil, however, is in the details. Some environmentalists fear the administration will privatize the state parks, a step Martin denied the state is contemplating.

“We have no intention of privatizing the state park system” he said after the hearing ended, although he added the state is looking at adding sponsorships from nonprofit groups and corporations to increase revenues.

As part of that effort, the state also is looking to increase revenue from food concessions, boat and canoe rentals, and other areas, according to Martin. Some state park systems outside of New Jersey, he noted, are making money.

Of the 39 parks in New Jersey, only Island Beach State Park is making money, Martin said. The state’s efforts to set up a long-term source of funding, he said, is part of a plan to reduce the park’s reliance on general funding.

“I am personally committed to developing a strategy that will protect our parks and their operations for the long term,” Martin said in his written statement. “I look forward to working with the legislature to make this a reality.”

A Step Toward Privatization?

Some environmentalists fear, however, that this is an incremental step to privatization. Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club, noted that the agency has turned over the management of one golf course to its previous owners, after paying millions of dollars to purchase it.

Other legislators criticized the agency for killing a proposed small state park in Trenton, saying only one of the state’s 39 state parks are located in an urban area. “It seems to be very selective,” said Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer).

Martin replied that the state does not have the money to complete the park, but the chairman of the committee, Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), agreed, saying the state has failed to show the respect to the capitol city it should have.