Trenton — Governor John Corzine has backed away from his plan to close several state parks due to fiscal pressures, according to an agency e-mail released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In addition, state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) employees have been told that they will not face imminent lay-offs.
Last month, Governor Corzine proposed to close several parks serving an estimated two million visitors each year and lay off 80 park workers in order to save the state roughly $4.5 million. Documents uncovered by PEER showed that DEP is forfeiting millions of dollars from not collecting owed rents and other payments from big corporations holding easements and concessions on park lands.
“I am glad someone finally listened to reason,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe. “Collecting rent is a basic step that should have been considered before announcing that parks will be closed to the public.”
In an e-mail to employees today, DEP Commissioner Lisa Jackson wrote –
“As you know, we did roll out a preliminary Reduction In Force (RIF) Plan primarily affecting our State Parks on April 1, 2008. Since that time our Governor has publicly supported keeping services in our State Parks open. This, of course, is very good news. At the same time, the Governor has asked us to review the full range of funding options potentially available to financially support parks operations on a going forward basis.”
Internal DEP documents posted by PEER show that uncollected and subsidized rents are common throughout the system. Problems include lack of lease agreements, failure to collect owed rents, rent-free arrangements, and outdated decades-old leases. DEP also ignored a series of Office of Legislative Services Audit reports issued in 1997, 1999 and 2003 documenting a lack of internal financial controls needed to track lease payments owed.
“The plan to close parks never made any sense, especially the part about using state workers to chase the public away from the parks that the public owns,” added Wolfe, noting that DEP is largely supported by federal funds and fees rather than state tax dollars. “Unfortunately, the DEP is being used as a political whipping boy when it has absolutely nothing to do with the state’s current financial straits.”
PEER has also objected to a recent series of dangerous proposed state environmental rollbacks done in the name of the present fiscal emergency, including efforts to cut back soil, water and anti-pollution powers now exercised by the state.
“More pollution is not the answer to New Jersey’s economic woes,” Wolfe concluded.
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability.