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BK culture on thin ice - Zoos, museums, gardens face dramatic cuts

The sign on the lily pond read thin ice.

In the brisk chill of the early February day, such a sight was hardly unexpected in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Nonetheless, how apt it was, as the garden struggles to stave off Draconian funding cuts proposed by New York Governor David Paterson.

The crux of the matter revolves around the Zoos, Botanical Gardens and Aquariums fund (ZBGA), a state budget line that for 30 years has provided 76 such institutions in every corner of the state with money used to bolster programming and continue their mission of providing education and entertainment to visitors.

For New York City, this means that such seminal institutions as BBG and the Wildlife Conservation Society, which administers the Aquarium as well as the Bronx Zoo, can look forward to painful cuts in the year to come, cuts that would be felt not only by the institutions but by the communities they are a part of, that could see jobs cut and tourism revenues slashed.

Thanks to the state legislature, the $9 million total funding in the ZBGA -- which the governor had proposed cutting by 55 percent halfway through the 2009 fiscal year -- was preserved for the current fiscal year. However, a bigger challenge lies ahead, because Paterson has proposed zeroing out ZBGA’s FY 2010 budget line, a proposal that could wreak havoc with the institutions’ budgets.

“We have won the battle but we still have the war ahead of us,” stressed Scott Medbury, BBG’s president.

The institutions are not taking the threat lying down. Rather, representatives of the Aquarium, BBG and the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment joined with Borough President Marty Markowitz in the Steinhardt Conservatory at BBG to denounce the proposed cuts, explaining their likely impact on the institutions that would be affected, as well as on those who use their services.

The institutions, stressed Markowitz, “Represent the very best of Brooklyn. They make Brooklyn, Brooklyn and it would be foolish, despite the challenges up in Albany, to consider anything close to what already has been suggested.

“I’m not just crying crocodile tears here,” the borough president went on, adding a plea to the governor and state legislators, “Please feed the animals and let our gardens grow.”

A key to the situation lies in the fact that the institutions that are threatened by the cuts are “living museums,” as Markowitz put it.

“We can’t furlough our fur seals, and I’m not about to look my walrus in the eye and tell him he has to look someplace else for work,” noted Jon Dohlin, the Aquarium’s director. Because the first priority of the Aquarium and similar institutions is to care for their collections, cuts must come from elsewhere. “We will have to cut staff and reduce hours,” he explained.

The situation at BBG is similar, said Medbury. Remarking that such institutions are “sort of the environmental literacy arm of the Environmental Protection Fund,” Medbury said that cuts would most likely mean that access to the garden would be limited, and programming “for children and seniors, programs in the community, programs at schools” would be curtailed.

This could have a long-range impact, Medbury added. “Caring about nature and the environment begins in childhood, so if we don’t do a good job at that, the whole of the state will suffer,” he stressed. “We understand the state’s fiscal challenges, and we understand equitable, proportionate funding next year, but the complete elimination of the fund is just absolutely bewildering to us at the garden.”

BBG is located at 1000 Washington Avenue.

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