Viewpoint: Arizona legislative cuts may force state parks to close

[Source: Bill Meek, President, Arizona State Parks Foundation] — It’s difficult to be heard above the roar of concern from the education community over the ravages of state cost-cutting measures that are designed to overcome a two-year, $3 billion budget deficit.  But some of the rest of us have to try.

I write on behalf of Arizona State Parks, a small agency that serves more than 2 million people and is threatened with extinction by the Arizona Legislature’s attempts to close its budget gap with any money it can find, regardless of the end result.

Arizona’s 30 state parks welcomed 2.3 million visitors in 2007.  They were hikers, boaters, swimmers, fishermen, campers, history students, photographers, bird watchers and just plain gawkers.  All were served at no cost to Arizona taxpayers because the parks take in more money than the Legislature spends on them.

In fact, during the past eight years, the Legislature has taken $60 million more from State Parks than it has appropriated from the General Fund to run the system.  That’s because every three or four years, when the state has a budget crisis, the Legislature sweeps funds that State Parks has set aside for capital improvements and for grants to city and county park systems.

State Parks has had no operating fund increases since 2002 and hasn’t had a meaningful capital budget since 2003.  As a result, State Parks has massive unmet capital needs and their facilities are falling into ruin.  Historical buildings, like Jerome’s Douglas Mansion, are collapsing due to disrepair.  Waste water systems throughout the parks are disintegrating and have been condemned by environmental regulators.  Beaches are eroding and docks are splintering at state rivers and lakes.

These are assets that belong to the citizens of Arizona, but the Legislature seems to think it is the landlord and is apparently willing to be a slumlord.

While State Parks has been strapped for money to maintain its facilities for many years, it has not had to fire employees.  The Legislature has always left just enough money in the till to avoid layoffs.  Until now.

Last Friday, the Legislative budget builders adopted a spending plan that cuts State Parks operating and capital funds by $26.3 million in 2009 and $23.2 million in 2010, leaving the agency about $8 million short of operating cash each year, according to Parks officials.  They say that means layoffs.  Even an expected infusion of $500 million of federal stimulus funds brings no relief to State Parks.

The Legislature also thumbed its nose at Arizona voters by grabbing nearly $5 million of Arizona Heritage Fund money.  More than a decade ago, state voters created the Heritage Fund by authorizing the Game & Fish and Parks departments to split $20 million of state lottery funds annually for wildlife habitat and other purposes.

In the Parks system, when employees are fired, parks must be closed.  Parks officials have already targeted five parks for closure and as many as a third of the state’s parks could be closed under the Legislature’s budget axe.  Some might never re-open.

The timing of these cuts couldn’t be worse, when we may be on the cusp of finding a solution to the parks system’s long-term needs.

Based on a request that originated from the Arizona State Parks Foundation, former Gov. Janet Napolitano appointed a citizens task force to study the future of the parks system and recommend long-range solutions to Parks financing.  With the support of Gov. Jan Brewer, the task force will soon begin work.

In addition, the State Parks Board has contracted with the Morrison Institute at Arizona State University and with Northern Arizona University for research to support the task force’s mission.  The studies will provide a social and economic framework for State Parks in the context of massive population growth over the next 20 years.

The state budget for 2010 is not cast in concrete, but based on the Legislature’s approach this year, 2010 could be much worse for State Parks.  Let’s hope there is something left for the parks task force to save.

[Note: To date, this opinion piece has been reprinted in the White Mountain Independent and Camp Verde Bugle.]