By JON CAMPBELL
Gannett Albany Bureau
ALBANY_ Hundreds of people gathered in front of the state Capitol on Wednesday to rally against Gov. David Paterson's proposal to close 55 of the state's 213 parks and historical sites.
Paterson has said the proposal, which would also result in service reductions at 24 other sites, would save the state $6 million and help with the state's financial woes.
Assembly Parks and Tourism Committee Chairman Steven Englebright, D-Suffolk County, spoke out against the cuts, applauding the public's response to the proposal.
"Even in this difficult year, most legislators have gotten more mail on this rather tiny little abrasion of a cut than all of the other parts of the budget put together," Englebright said after the rally. "People love their parks and they identify with the need for the park for their peace of mind, their quality of life and a sense that they are getting something for their tax dollar."
At a press conference earlier in the day, Senate Parks and Tourism Committee Chair Jose Serrano said he sent a letter to leaders in the Senate requesting a restoration of funding to the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation to keep the parks open.
Opponents of the governor's proposal say the cuts represent a minimal amount of money in the state's $132 billion budget. The state faces a budget gap of over $9 billion for the 2010-11 fiscal year, which starts April 1.
Dan Keefe, a spokesman for the state Department of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, said the cuts are "now part of the budget process." The parks department has seen its budget slashed 40 percent over the last two years.
"The governor has indicated that he is willing to have a dialogue about the parks system and all of the other budget issues," Keefe said.
With opposition coming from both sides of the political aisle, park advocates are hopeful the Legislature will reject the proposal. "When I saw the governor's proposed cuts, I was depressed to start out the year," said Shawn McConnell, a representative for Parks & Trails New York and director of the Campaign for Parks.
"But by seeing so much support and momentum being built up ... it really gives me hope that we can beat these draconian cuts and I think we can save our state parks."
In his 21-day budget amendments, Paterson proposed using $5 million from the state's Environmental Protection Fund to help fund state-park operations, a move that would prevent closures at 36 additional parks and historical sites and service reductions at 14 others.
Earlier this week, the state canceled 351 camping reservations across 12 parks that are slated for closure. At the rally, Englebright said the state isn't respecting the budget process because the reservations were canceled before the cuts were even presented to the Legislature.
"Let's have respect for the people and the process that represents them," Englebright said. "All of those cancellations should be immediately stopped and reinstated."
Keefe said by canceling the reservations, the parks department was "trying to do the right thing and give people a chance to make other arrangements."
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