Next Tuesday, six county nature centers including Edith Read Sanctuary and Marshlands Conservancy in Rye could close. The final budget hearing on the 2012 fiscal budget will be held at the Westchester County Center at 7 p.m. that evening.
"That leaves me out looking for a job," said curator Michael Gambino. "But for the public it means a lack of use [of the sanctuary grounds]."
In his proposed 2012 county budget totalling $1.689 billion, County Executive Rob Astorino has proposed cutting the staff and closing the buildings at Read Sanctuary and Marshlands Conservancy, Cranberry Lake Preserve, Croton Point Nature Center, Lenoir Preserve and Trailside Nature Museum to save money.
"Our 2010 operating budget was around $75,000," said Gambino. "What it will cost to re-open, if the park closes, will be ten times more."
The amount the county spends to operate the nature centers Gambino says emphatically, "is the biggest return for the smallest investment."
Gambino can't imagine why the six nature centers would even be targeted by County Executive Astorino and says the people he's talked to have the same reaction. "Anybody passing by is appalled he would even think of it."
With a note of disappointment, Gambino says of Astorino's attitude about county parks, "Either he doesn't understand or he doesn't care."
Michael Gambino is an army of one. "I have a lot of passion for this," Gambino said as he describes his job without a hint of irony. "This is not a position you can stick just anyone into."
He is the sole county employee at Read Sanctuary. His job description includes trail maintenance, remediation of invasive species, handling and caring for injured birds.
"Part of my job is to create a diverse habitat." Gambino says without vigilance invasive birds, animals, insects and even humans would overrun the ecology the sanctuary is meant to protect.
His responsibility is to ensure the delicate ecological balance of the 179-acre ornithological safe haven and its 85-acre lake are maintained. That means going out and stake marking, even moving, the nests of killdeer–a shore bird that sometime settle in the grassy area near the sanctuary lake– to protect them from hapless mowers or unaware helicopter pilots who use the field they nest in as a landing pad. It means chasing off delinquents who might vandalize or engage in illicit activity on sanctuary grounds. It means ensuring the three miles of trails used by individual and group hikers are safe and well-maintained.
And it definitely includes coordinating the volunteers who make preservation of the 179-acre grounds possible. Gambino estimates volunteers annually donate 3,000 service hours at an equivalent value of $85,000 in volunteer service to the nature center.
Gambino directs them on removing the invasive plant and animal species that threaten the habitat, or when short-handed of volunteers, he does it himself. He coordinates when school groups make educational or service hour visits to the sanctuary. He liaisons with the Friends of Edith Read, a group that includes as many as 500 people who donate volunteer time and money for supplies that county allocations don’t cover.
If Astorino’s budget proposal is adopted, the building in which Gambino’s office will be padlocked, cutting off access to the exhibits and educational materials inside– and the public bathrooms.
Gambino worries without his professional duties being fulfilled, the grounds will quickly start to over grow with weeds and invasive plants overtaking the native fauna the sanctuary was created to protect; trespassers will face no deterrent to littering, trespassing or other illicit activity on the grounds. If trails become blocked, they may not be cleared and no one will be around to make sure hikers are safe.
County Executive Astorino’s budget proposal cuts the total County Parks and Recreation budget from $51 million to $48 million, a five percent reduction.
In 2011, the County Conservation Division reported both Marshlands Conservancy and Edith Read Sanctuary had one county paid curator at each site. Total 2011 expenditures were approximately $70,000 at Edith Read and $81,000 at Marshlands Conservancy.
"I was elected on a promise that I would control county government taxes, and with this budget we have done so for the second year in a row,” said Astorino when his proposal was released November 15. Astorino’s budget proposal holds property tax levies to the same rate as the 2011 budget; in part, according to a release by the office of the County Executive, by “reduc[ing] the [county] workforce 7.5 percent by eliminating 367 jobs, including 210 by layoff.”
In a November 15 press release, the Board of Legislators responded to County Executive’ Astorino’s proposal:
“The Westchester County Board of Legislators remains committed to no county tax increase this year, and we will scrutinize every line of the County Executive’s spending plan to make sure that we continue to make prudent investments in the Westchester’s future prosperity.”
While Astorino has said the public would still be able to access the grounds at each of the proposed closures sites, it is unclear how or who will be responsible for maintaining them without their current professional staff.
“I don’t know how much it would cost to restore the grounds, if they fall into decline,” Gambino said with concern. “And I can’t imagine people will continue to come to use the trails if they don’t feel safe.”