Gov. David Paterson's budget proposal Tuesday would significantly reduce the Environmental Protection Fund and create a new primary source of revenue for it.
The changes are part of a $121.1 billion state budget proposal for the 2009-10 fiscal year, aimed at reducing a roughly $15 billion deficit.
The proposed EPF budget is $205 million, or $95 million less than required by a 2007 bill passed by state lawmakers whose intent was to increase the fund to $300 million by the 2009-2010 fiscal year. Currently, the EPF contains $255 million.
Here in the Adirondack Park, the EPF is well known because money from it is used for many, although not all, state land purchases. The land-acquisition budget would decrease slightly from $66.6 million to $58 million.
Since it was created in 1993, the EPF has been funded mainly through real estate transfer tax. Paterson has proposed legislation that would reduce the amount of real estate transfer tax going into the EPF from $287 million to $80 million.
The majority of that lost funding would be made up by a new bottle bill that would allocate unclaimed five-cent deposits to the EPF. Currently, that money is going back to the bottle manufacturers. The new bottle bill would also create five-cent deposits for bottled water, sports and other noncarbonated drinks.
The change in funding drew criticism from environmental organizations, including the Adirondack Council and the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks. These environmental organizations see the bottle bill as positive by itself - just not as the primary source of funding for the EPF, because it is not known exactly how much money it will generate.
"Governor Paterson's proposal to re-organize funding sources to the EPF defies logic," Michael Washburn, executive director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, wrote in an e-mail to the Enterprise. "The real-estate transfer tax is a straight-forward vehicle for funding important conservation efforts and green jobs. This may be a short-term savings, but citizens will pay for the damage to public health and the environment over the long term."
The EPF provides money for recycling, landfill closure, urban parks, farmland preservation, smart growth, open space, water quality, pollution prevention and a range of other environmental programs administered by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.
Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan said the land-acquisition cut isn't huge but could have an impact.
"It's a little over a 10-percent cut, not a tragedy in itself," he said. "But we had expected the category to climb considerably in the coming year, and not just because we've got a couple hundred million worth of projects in line for state funding in the Adirondacks, but because for every year the not-for-profits are holding those properties that don't get bought out by the state, it becomes more likely those not-for-profits won't be able to pay the taxes."
The Nature Conservancy is currently holding the 14,700-acre Follensby Pond property and 161,000 acres of former Finch, Pruyn property. The state has actively sought the Follensby property since the 1970s and has already agreed to buy 57,699 acres of the former Finch, Pruyn land for the Forest Preserve, in addition to putting conservation easements on another 73,627 acres.
Currently, The Nature Conservancy is paying local property taxes on these lands even though it isn't required by law to do so; it could claim exemption as a nonprofit organization.
Sheehan said other areas of the EPF would really lose a lot of funding. He pointed out that the waterfront revitalization project funding, which is doled out in grants to municipalities, would fall from $27.3 million to $9 million. The Smart Growth fund for local planning incentives would shrink from $2.5 million to $2 million. Farmland protection would drop from $30 million to $17.5 million.
"The big hits are coming in categories that are working to help local programs," Sheehan said, "things that are otherwise going to fall on the backs of local taxpayers."
One of the biggest hits in the EPF would be the budget to fight invasive species, which would shrink from $5 million to $1.5 million.
On the other hand, public access and stewardship monies would increase from $5.8 million to $38 million: from $5 million to $19 million for the DEC and from zero to $19 million for the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
Trout and salmon stamp
Trout and salmon fisherman may have another fee on top of the regular license fee of $19 for state residents. Paterson has proposed a $19 trout and salmon stamp that would be required when fishing for these species.
The fee is expected to raise $4 million for the Conservation Fund, a source for many sporting and recreation projects which would otherwise have a negative balance of $9.8 million, according to the governor's budget.
APA and DEC staffing
The DEC's proposed budget would be $1.1 billion, or a decrease of $98.1 million. This decrease is consistent with that for other state agencies.
The DEC would have a workforce of 3,506, or 240 less than now, due to a statewide hiring freeze, according to budget documents.
The APA would keep its current workforce of 72 positions and have a budget of $6.2 million, a decrease of $400,000 from this year.
Contact Mike Lynch at (518) 891-2600 ext. 28 or email@example.com.
(Editor's note: This article has been clarified.)