A spokesman for the Sierra Club of New Jersey warns, "Next thing you know, you have to pay more for everything and the public's access is limited. You'll be getting fee'd to death." That's the opinion of Jeff Tittel, the group's director.
On the other side of the spectrum comes Lou Valente, the architect of the state's plan to generate more income through alliances with non-government entities. Valente started feeling the heat last October when the state rolled out its plans to rely less on government funds and more on outside income.
Valente told the paper, "We're planning substantial change by 2015." If plans go the way of his vision, over a third of the park monies would come from outside groups, raising funds from concessionaires and the leasing of some park properties like golf courses. Valente says the money is needed badly--parks take in $8 million a year, but the annual budget runs $40 million.
Critics envision chain restaurants operating on park grounds; huge gatherings where groups could rent out park venues for weddings--or worse. The state contends they have much more down-to-earth and park-friendly views. A non-profit group taking over life guard staffing and charging a fee for lessons and exercise classes. But others wonder what will happen if other operations are taken over by vendors. Sierra Club Tittel: They're not professionals and don't have the same level of caring for the parks," he said. "Who's screening them? Will valuables walk away? Then, there's the loss of access,"if you can make more money on a Saturday afternoon renting out a park area, then the public doesn't have access."
It's a contentious issue, and one like other states across the union are dealing with. Some states are simply closing parks, or turning them over to private entities for operations. Others are looking to fee programs that increasingly ding users as they come in the gate. California is increasingly looking to "friends" groups of non-profit organizations who either directly operate parks, or provide funding to pay for state employees to continue to do their jobs.
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photo: Barnegat Lighthouse State Park, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection