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March 8, 2009

Times Union

Protect environmental fund

Gov. David Paterson outlined some bold goals to protect the environment and improve public health during his State of the State address — making the Hudson shoreline look as it did when Henry Hudson sailed up the river, ensuring its waters are clean and fighting childhood obesity. All are placed at risk by his proposal to cut the Environmental Protection Fund and divert its secure revenue source.

Scenic Hudson and The Nature Conservancy are working with partners to ensure the preservation of key parcels in the Hudson Valley and Capital Region that meet the state's highest standards for scenic, ecological and agricultural values. Much of this land will become parks where children can enjoy nature while keeping fit.

If the Legislature approves the governor's plan to cut the EPF in next year's budget by 30 percent (from $300 million to $205 million) on top of its recent agreement to drain the fund this fiscal year through a $50-million "sweep," this and many other vital land-protection initiatives will be jeopardized. So will construction and maintenance of water and wastewater treatment facilities needed to meet state and federal clean water laws.

Established by law in 1993 during another recession, the EPF has been supported by a modest tax on real estate transactions. Governor Paterson proposes diverting these funds to other purposes and supporting the EPF by deposits from an expanded bottle recycling bill.

Scenic Hudson and The Nature Conservancy are fighting for passage of this bill, which would ensure that water bottles and other noncarbonated drink containers stay out of landfills. There's just one hitch: It has failed in the Senate for 20 years, and despite new leadership, there's no guarantee it will pass now. Even if it does, the EPF would accrue just $118 million from the bottle bill, compared to $255 million in tax funds it was mandated to receive from the real estate tax in 2008.

The EPF has helped almost every municipality in the state create new parks and playgrounds, improve the quality of drinking water, institute critical pollution-control measures, protect open space from irresponsible development and bring new life to downtown waterfronts.

The EPF creates enormous economic stimulus, serving as a catalyst for private investment — as much as $40 for every $1 in public funds. These partnerships accelerate projects that create jobs, reduce the need for property-tax increases, raise property values and enhance regional economies.

Statistics bear out the EPF's impact. State parks benefiting from it provide $20 million in annual revenue to struggling counties and support 1,000 construction and engineering jobs. New York's recycling industry delivers $10 billion in income and 30,000 jobs. And every $1 million in EPF funds spent rehabilitating historic buildings adds $1.9 million to the economy.

Considering the governor's commitment to combating climate change, reducing the EPF also doesn't make sense. By conserving working farms that supply locally grown produce to our kitchen tables, the EPF helps reduce our carbon footprint. Protected forests sequester carbon, reducing greenhouse gases.

Of special concern to communities in the Capital Region and Hudson Valley, a reduced EPF means cuts to the Hudson River Estuary Program. This is the lead agency in regional efforts to mitigate climate change and manager of the state's official blueprint for improving the health of the Hudson and waterfront municipalities. Accomplishing the agenda's goals — restoring commercial fisheries, ensuring river access points in every waterfront town, and making the whole Hudson healthy enough for swimming — is laying the groundwork for sustainable economic growth.

Difficult choices must be made to close the state's deficit. However, to achieve the governor's goals and help kick-start New York's economy, we urge him and the Legislature to maintain EPF funding at mandated levels through the real estate tax. It's no exaggeration to say the future of our communities, and the health of every state resident, depends on this.


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