Trenton — Questionable deals to reduce or waive rental payments from private leases and concessions throughout New Jersey’s State Parks is costing taxpayers a bundle, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The state has ignored repeated warnings that it is forfeiting millions of dollars each year by failing to collect what is owed by easement-holders and concessionaires, including some of the state’s largest corporations.
Governor Jon Corzine has proposed to close several parks serving an estimated two million visitors each year and lay off 80 park workers in order to save the state roughly $4.5 million. Yet, the Governor’s people failed to consider the unutilized revenue potential of the system they are trying to collapse.
“Collecting rents is basic management 101, but that is a course our top folks evidently failed,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) analyst, noting that utilities, oil companies and other big corporate players are not paying current market rates for use of state lands, facilities and right-of-ways. “Our parks can no longer afford corporate welfare.”
Internal documents from DEP, the parent agency for the Division of Parks and Forestry, indicate that uncollected and subsidized rents are common throughout the system. Problems include lack of lease agreements, failure to collect owed rents, rent-free arrangements, and outdated decades-old leases:
- Millions of dollars in lease revenue goes uncollected from major corporations granted use easements for transmission lines, pipelines and sewage lines across State Park lands;
- In Six Mile Run and Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park, for example, none of the agricultural tenants are paying any rent nor do they even have current leases; and
- The parks Office of Leases and Concessions routinely signs off on “rent abatements” and other give-aways described by one former superintendent as “a scam”.
Over the past few years, Parks Supervisors repeatedly identified similar problems, but DEP management took no action. DEP also ignored a series of Office of Legislative Services Audit reports issued in 1997, 1999 and 2003 documenting a lack of internal financial controls needed to track lease payments owed.
“With parks facing shutdowns and visitors hit with higher entry and parking fees, it is past time to put our fiscal house in order,” added Wolfe. “Our parks are supposed to be free for the enjoyment of the public, not the concessionaires.”
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability.