State Should Not Use Parks to Fix Pensions

State Should Not Use Parks to Fix Pensions

 

An effort to privatize our state’s parks is again gaining momentum as the Murphy administration evaluates how public assets could generate more revenue for the state’s pension system. The state Department of Treasury has made a formal request for qualifications – RFQ – in search of a financial advisor to review a long list of assets to be potentially monetized through sale, lease, naming rights or other transactions. Those assets include roads, bridges, and buildings as well as parks and other recreational facilities. While the chronically underfunded pension system needs the money, privatization of parks will jeopardize public service and access.

“The state should not be looking at parks and open space as assets to fix their pensions. We are concerned that the potential lease or sale of these lands will break the public trust. They are owned by the public, for the public and entrusted with our government. This is our heritage, our legacy, and we cannot sacrifice that because of financial problems,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Commercialization of our parkland will mean the loss of public access to parks and historic sites. Privatizing our parks could open up the land to any use, including pipelines and power lines. We need to keep the green out of Green Acres.”

Monetization schemes for state assets are nothing new in New Jersey, although public outrage has derailed several past attempts. For years lawmakers have periodically floated the idea to help generate more revenue. Gov. Corzine made a big privatization push more than a decade ago, threatening to use state assets like the New Jersey Turnpike to pay down debt. His plan to close nine parks drew hundreds of protesters to the Statehouse steps. Gov. Christie constantly worked to privatize at least portions of public land with the goal of making parks more self-sufficient.

“We will have a whole new battle on our hands, fighting to protect from commercialization the same public lands that so many people have already worked so hard to protect. We fought against a hotel, millionaire’s golf course and private marina at Liberty State Park, and the effort to protect that land already continues. We fought against a private food court at Island Beach State Park. Historic artifacts and artwork have disappeared from privatized historic sites. We need to continue the battle. Our parks cannot be sacrificed to corporate interests. This land is your land, not Marriott’s,” said Tittel. “This could be monetization phase two. The state should have learned its lesson from the Corzine debacle. Don’t seek short-term gain when it will mean much greater long-term loss.”

New Jersey residents have for many years been willing to devote substantial resources to land preservation despite living in a high-tax state because they have recognized the importance of saving our open spaces. Taxpayers have invested heavily in our future for nearly 60 years, since the beginning of Green Acres, which has been one of the state’s most successful programs. Under Gov. Christie Whitman the state began devoting $200 million annually to saving open space and farmland, and that continued for nearly 20 years. The latest privatization push comes after a nonpartisan commission of fiscal-policy experts assembled by Senate President Steve Sweeney offered recommendations to make government more cost-effective, including monetizing state assets. The RFQ seeking a financial advisor signals support from Murphy to at least explore monetization.

“Taxpayers have already paid for this land, and now they’re going to have it taken away from them and commercialized. There are respectful ways to blend private ventures into our parks, but we do not trust that will happen. The word privatization comes from privateer, which is just another name for pirate. That’s fitting. We cannot have for-profit companies taking over public land, restricting access and failing to further the mission of the parks. We do not want a Ferris wheel spinning near where Washington slept. This land is your land, not Marriott’s,” said Tittel.

New Jersey has endured a long list of dubious ideas to commercialize public land. The fight continues to protect Liberty State Park, where proposals in or near the park have included a casino and a Formula One racetrack as well as a marina and golf course. Revitalization efforts in Atlantic City have included consideration of a NASCAR track on public land. DEP considered leasing part of Norvin Green State Forest for a pay-to-play mountain bike park. DEP staffing cuts add to the privatization pressures. Several years ago under Christie, irreplaceable artifacts and paintings donated to the state of New Jersey were stolen from the historic Ringwood Manor, where staffing shortages left the facility vulnerable. Just last month, DEP began seeking private vendors to handle concessions in some state parks because DEP no longer has enough parks personnel to handle those jobs.

“There is nothing wrong with having private concessions for our parks as long as they remain open to the public and are not too expensive, and that we don’t lose access to areas of the park. They cannot lose sight of the parks’ mission. But when public land is commercialized, we lose a part of our legacy,” said Tittel. “Corporate naming rights could leave us with Jeep Liberty State Park, or Viagra High Point State Park, or Fort Mott’s Applesauce State Park, or Pepto Bismol Assunpink Wildlife Management Area.”

New Jersey’s pension crisis assures that revenue pressures will continue to build. Gov. Murphy has mapped out ambitious budget goals that will only add to those pressures. Gov. Christie permanently dedicated lottery revenue toward pension systems, but that will not be nearly enough without major reforms. In the current fiscal climate the idea of monetizing public assets could gain more support, endangering all of our parks and open spaces.

“The Sierra Club for more than 125 years has fought to preserve public lands for the public. That is what the we stand for, and what we will continue to fight for against threats that will continue no matter who the governor is. Our parks are for everyone. Too many people have fought too hard for too long to save our open spaces to lose them now to profiteers,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

 

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