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Skeptical Essay

January 29, 2015

Start with the notion that the most open and transparent administration in history may not be.

Consider what people who work for the administration say in candid moments, such as the following, which is from a former commissioner: “They have a narrative and you are required to fit what you’re doing into that narrative. To the extent you can do it, they like you. To the extent you can’t do it because the facts just can’t be manipulated, you’re required to keep your mouth shut.”

Factor in what every reporter knows from dealing with the administration over the last four years – if you’re not actually misled, you’re certainly not dealt with in a forthright manner.

Process those three concepts, and incorporate skepticism into your analysis of everything the administration does.

Now let’s consider yesterday’s wonderful announcement about state parks setting an attendance record last year. Could it really be that 62 million people went to the parks and that this was the result of a concerted effort by the Governor himself to boost attendance?

Keep in mind that there are only 20 million people in New York. Keep in mind that when you visit a park, there’s an admission charge of $10 per car at the gate and – at least in our experience – there’s nobody looking inside your car to determine how many people are in the vehicle.

In our experience, there’s a college kid on summer break who steps out of a hut at the entrance to the park and says: “Ten bucks.” You give it to him and he hands you a ticket stub and you drive on to the pool or the lake.  He’s not recording numbers of people entering the park; he’s hung over.

But for the sake of argument, let’s go with the official 62 million figure. The interesting question is: What was per person fee to enjoy the parks?

The most open and transparent administration in history doesn’t make it very easy to determine an answer to that question, and even if it did, we’d still be obligated, pursuant to our commitment to be skeptical, to do the math our selves.

Doing the math isn’t easy, but if you stick with it, it’s fun. (At least, that’s what we tell our kids.)

Let’s try: Last year, members of our group visited state parks at Niagara Falls, Jones Beach, Letchworth and Saratoga.

At each site, there was a $10 entrance/parking charge. And there were additional per person charges  – to swim in the pool, to access an observation tower, to go on a bus tour, to rent a canoe.

For example, when one of the members of our group took his wife and kids to Saratoga State Park this summer, he paid the $10 gate fee and then paid a $2 per person charge at the Peerless Pool. There were four people in his group – Ma, Pa and two little kids.  So he spent $18 to enjoy the day. A bargain, for sure.

This translates into per person revenue to the state of $4.50. Now we could stop right here and say that this experience is fairly typical so let’s just multiply $4.50 times 62 million and we’d get $279 million in park revenues.

But is this experience at Saratoga typical?  Well, according to the administration, Jones Beach was the most popular state park last year, accounting for 40 percent of all visitors to parks.

Digression: This is actually quite interesting. In previous years, the state parks department always identified Niagara Falls as the top site attendance-wise. In fact, the parks department says in its promo material that Niagara Falls State Park receives more visitors than the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Parks combined. Apparently, Jones Beach has now eclipsed Niagara Falls.

How does Jones Beach compare to Saratoga – fee wise?. Well, there’s the same $10 entrance fee, but there’s also a range of additional fees from $3 to $10 for locker rental, bathhouse access, pool access, nature center admission, umbrella and lounge chair rental.

When another member of our group went to Jones Beach last year, she went with her companion and another couple. Their combined expenses were — $10 entrance fee, $3 x 4 for bathhouse access,  $1 x 4 for locker rental, and $4 x 4 for nature center admission.  The total was $40 divided by four for a $10 average per person revenue to the state.

If you use Jones Beach as the typical experience, you get a significantly higher total revenue figure for the state — $10 times 62 million is $620 million in annual revenue for the state.

We know what you’re thinking at this point – there are a lot of smaller parks and historic sites that have very low admission. That’s correct: Sackett’s Harbor and Johnson Hall, for example, are just $4. This would bring down the average per person revenue to the state.

However, there are also sites like Belleayre Skis Resort where a lift ticket is $64 and Saratoga golf course where the greens fees are $38 and a golf cart is $18.50.

And then there’s Bethpage Black – which, if you’re a golfer, is like the Elysian Fields.  At Bethpage, you’re going to pay to park, and for greens fees and a cart and would come close to $100. Without a doubt, it is the best c-note you’ll ever spend, but again, it increases the average per person visitor revenue for the state.

Our point with all of this – and thank you for reading this far – is to question the administration.

It would appear to us that if 62 million people actually visited the state parks last year and that they spent an average of at least $10 per person, the state brought in more than $620 million in fee revenue – which turns out to be almost twice the total parks department budget of $330 million.

And if so, how is it that the parks department requires a 56 percent operating subsidy from the state? That’s from the parks department annual report.

No – we’re not suggesting that the governor’s office inflated the attendance numbers nor plays games with the accounting at the parks department.  There are probably some very good explanations for these apparent discrepancies.

We’re just trying to get you, dear readers, in the habit of thinking independently and critically about government PR. This would be preparation for another post in which we might raise more blunt and provocative questions about the administration’s claims.

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