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In February, many of us wonder what we are doing in Massachusetts, but by August the beaches and forests remind us of why we love this state. Public parks are not just summer fun, they also help make the region more competitive. In a footloose world, public amenities such as parks and beaches are one way to attract the smart, entrepreneurial people that drive our economy.
Governor Deval Patrick earned the ire of park advocates by failing to deliver a promised $10 million increase in park spending. On Wednesday, the governor received applause for upping the beaches budget an extra $2 million. I am glad to see more investment in parks and beaches, but as in most areas of government, spending money wisely is more important than spending more money.
The state's Department of Conservation and Recreation is reforming itself, but the department needs help to become a model of modern public management, with greater focus, stronger incentives, and more transparency. The Legislature should restrict the roster of responsibilities that reside within the DCR: Parks and beaches deserve their own department. New funding for the department should be tied to the amount of private funding that DCR raises for parks, which will create stronger incentives for the DCR and donors to build private-public partnerships. Increased funding should only come with a clearer analysis of the costs and benefits of each park and beach.
Giving a government agency too many responsibilities is as bad as giving it none. Currently, the DCR oversees a dizzying array of the state's treasures and headaches, including forests, parks, parkways, bridges, reservoirs, and groundwater. Most absurd, DCR rangers are responsible for protecting the State House against terrorism. The first step toward helping the DCR is to eliminate its extra chores and let it focus on parks and beaches. DCR's highways can go to MassHighway; its security obligations can be given to state troopers.
The refocused department should then work on leveraging public spending with private giving. Henry Stern, former New York City Parks commissioner, transformed Central Park from a crime-ridden no-man's land into a public asset with the help of the nonprofit Central Park Conservancy. Massachusetts' strong tradition of philanthropy means that it can surpass New York in using private giving to improve parks. Environmentalists can do more for the Berkshires; social philanthropies can contribute more to urban pools.
The DCR already takes advantage of private partners like the Revere Beach Partnership and the Arborway Coalition, but the state can help the department engage private partners by making increased funding contingent on private contributions. If an extra $10 million of state funding depends on DCR raising $20 million of private money, this will create an added incentive to enlist private allies and an added incentive for those allies to invest in our parks.
Increased funding should also be contingent on better accounting of costs and benefits. Three simple measures can help evaluate DCR and its parks: visitors, acres, and spending. Parks and beaches have two primary outputs: recreation, or visits, and conservation, or acres. The benefits of Salisbury Beach and Plymouth Rock can be seen in the hundreds of thousands of visits they get each year. The benefits of October Mountain State Forest can be seen in the 16,500 acres it protects. These metrics can be improved but provide a start for evaluating DCR spending.
Why is it useful to compare park costs with the benefits associated with visits and acreage? Comparing costs and benefits helps to allocate resources across parks, especially toward areas that have high attendance levels and low current levels of spending. Comparing costs and benefits is the only way to evaluate whether the benefits from a new DCR acquisition exceed its costs. Finally, a comparison of costs and benefits helps to evaluate the system as a whole. DCR's state parks hosted 17 million visits in the 2007 fiscal year, which seems like a good return on the department's limited budget.
There may be something mystical about an afternoon in a forest, but there should be nothing mystical about running a park system. Focusing DCR on beaches and parks, providing more incentives for private funding, and improving the measurement of the costs and benefits of parks will help us get more beach for the buck.