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Parks aid isn't quite what it seems

It looked so good on paper.

Out of 48 projects planned for state parks throughout New York, Niagara Falls State Park was going to get more money than any other on the list.

In a news release dispatched from Albany, the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation hailed it as "Governor Cuomo's commitment of $25 million to revitalize Niagara Falls State Park."

Sounds great, until you realize it's money that was already committed.

Earth Day brought Parks Commissioner Rose Harvey to Niagara Falls to detail the projects planned: updated trails, improved scenic overlooks, better signage, a reconstructed Cave of the Winds and more.

"We need to show that this can be America's most visible, most important park," Harvey told reporters.

But underneath the glowing remarks, there was this little-discussed reality: This isn't new money. It's $25 million that had already been dedicated to state parks along the Niagara River Greenway.

What seemed like a renewed commitment to a state park criticized as "shabby" and "underfinanced" was actually a repackaging of dollars already promised for parks in the region.

And it's future money. Officials have found a way to tap into $3 million a year owed to state parks under a 50-year settlement with the New York Power Authority for the relicensing of its hydroelectric dam on the Niagara River.

Some of that money will be "advanced" so state officials can spend it now.

So while Albany sprinkles capital dollars in parks throughout the state, Niagara Falls will use money already squirreled away for future improvements in state parks here.

Officials are essentially shuffling our own money and making a show of giving it back.

Harvey sees it differently.

"The state stepped forward with the $3 million years ago," Harvey said of the Power Authority's annual parks payments. "It's now stepping forward in a big way with a very creative financing package to make $25 million of necessary change available today."

Here's how Harvey explained the plan: Niagara Falls State Park will get $25 million now in exchange for half of the Power Authority payments for state parks scheduled for the next 20 years. That will leave $1.5 million a year available during the next two decades.

Harvey contends the money will have more of an impact today as a lump sum than it would have spread out.

"Twenty-five million today will make a huge difference," Harvey said. "You're going to change the landscape. You're going to buy new trolleys. You're going to really address many of the capital needs that the park has."

State Parks, she said, is also paying for design work to prepare for the projects -- money she says is comparable to what other state parks will get this year. Meanwhile, she noted, dozens of other parks are getting no capital dollars.

I don't discount that state officials are finally talking about a long-term vision for Niagara Falls State Park. The situation today is better than just two years ago, when services were scaled back and the state talked of closing parks.

But the reason Niagara Falls State Park is in desperate need of money is because the state neglected it for years, despite the fact that the park is a moneymaker for the parks system because of its parking fees and concession revenues.

Albany, meanwhile, has taken more than its fair share from Niagara Falls -- whether the water the Power Authority diverts from the falls each night or the $200 million the state raked in from slot machines at the Seneca Niagara Casino.

I'll leave this for you to decide: innovative financing plan or just another publicity stunt at Niagara Falls State Park?