By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
Ten former directors of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) are urging the General Assembly to restore funding to a depleted agency so it can address much-needed repairs at state parks and beaches.
In a May 20 letter to state senators, the previous agency heads wrote that “management of Rhode Island’s public lands is now so gravely underfunded that the quality of our parks and the park experience for visitors and residents are noticeably declining despite the best efforts of the DEM staff.”
They refer to a 2018 analysis of the Ocean State’s park and recreation facilities that found full-time park staff dropped from 123 in 1989 to 42. The reduced staff is maintaining twice the acreage per staff member than the national standard. Meanwhile, there is a backlog of $50 million in beach and park maintenance work.
Reduced staff has lead to an over-reliance on seasonal employees and contractors who respond to immediate needs while longer-term planning and maintenance, typically performed by full-time planners and administrators, suffers.
“The Rhode Island state park system is at a critical crossroad,” according to last year’s report. “Without a concerted effort to increase staffing and funding, the system will continue to deteriorate, and the department will be unable to keep some facilities open and adequately staff and maintain others.”
Climate change is also putting more demand on Rhode Island’s park system. Warmer weather brings more people to the outdoors and extends the beach and recreation season. Structures need to be built and maintained to deal with climate-change impacts such as sea-level rise and increased rainfall.
The 2018 organizational and operations study, done by two independent consultants, offers a plan for fixing the state’s 24 parks, beaches, bikeways, and recreational facilities. The 10 former DEM directors endorse the report’s recommendations of hiring eight new park staff this year and 16 over four years. The new employees would include six skilled labor positions to address plumbing, electrical work, and arborist services.
The former directors also want to restore the practice of having beach and campground fees pay for those operations, rather than have the money added to DEM’s overall budget.
“Studies have shown that park users are more willing to pay fees if they know they are being reinvested in park facilities,” according to their recent letter.
Overall, DEM’s staff has shrunk from 650 employees more than a decade ago to 381 today. The state’s beaches and parks remain as popular as ever, with 9.4 million visits annually. In fact, beach visits are up 37 percent since 2010.
The former DEM heads refer to economic benefits of state recreation areas highlighted in the 2018 study, such as $38.8 million in annual tax revenue, $312 million in consumer spending, and 3,709 jobs supported each year.
Current DEM director Janey Coit thanked the group for their plea. But, so far, no one in the General Assembly has responded to the letter. The House and Senate are expected to pass a new budget in the coming weeks.
At a May 1 budget hearing, Coit made a plea for 11 additional employees and $4 million for the 2020 fiscal budget. Eight of the employees are needed for maintenance and other services at state parks and beaches, she said.
The May 20 letter is signed by Mike Annarummo, Bob Bendick, Louise Durfee, Tim Keeney, Andy McLeod, Jan Reitsma, Michael Sullivan, Fred Vincent, George Welly, and Edward Wood.
Here are some facts about Rhode Island’s public recreation areas:
The Division of Parks and Recreation manages more than 8,200 acres of parks, beaches, campgrounds, bike paths, historic sites, picnic areas, trails, athletic fields, dams, fishing access, and boat ramps. They include 1,000 campsites and 400 miles of trails for biking, hiking, and walking.
In 2016, the park system generated $6.8 million in revenue. Beach parking accounted for 45 percent; camping 27 percent; concessions and leases 23 percent; golf 3 percent, and parks 2 percent.
The $10.6 million in expenses in 2016 was spent on general operating (37 percent); full-time salaries (27 percent), and seasonal staffing (29 percent).