Viewpoint: Long-term fix needed for Arizona State Parks

[Source: Editorial Board, Arizona Republic, 9-22-2009] — Funding will flow to pay state park rangers and stalled projects will start again — if a state budget committee gives the go-ahead today.  Arizona State Parks plans to backfill some of its crippling budget cuts this year by tapping cash in the Heritage Fund: $6.5 million for staffing and $6.1 million to restore grants that were suspended.  This is a short-term fix, a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul strategy.  It’s not a solution but a sign of the dire plight of our parks. Still, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee should endorse the proposal.

Recreational and preservation projects around Arizona screeched to a halt in February when the State Parks Board suspended funding on Heritage Fund grants in a desperate bid to keep parks open.  Soccer fields under construction, half-finished repairs to historic buildings, trails that were under way, partly built parks — some of the projects were 90 percent complete when the funding abruptly stopped.  Those that had raised matching funds were in danger of losing their money.

These are projects that went through tough competition and must meet rigorous reporting requirements.  From the Great Arizona Puppet Theater to petroglyph sites, they are part of Arizona’s character.  A wall-stabilization job was under way at the historic Sullivan Hotel in Jerome, a former house of ill repute that is now shops.  With the 1903 structure on the verge of collapse, owners Mary Wills and Sally Dryer borrowed money to get the work done.  If the JLBC approves, they’ll finally be able to pay off the debt and the contractors who were willing to wait.

Relieving part of this year’s crisis with the Heritage Fund means that money won’t be available next year.  And some already approved projects — restoring the iconic San Xavier del Bac Mission is a particularly appalling case — are not eligible for the backfill because they were not under way or had not yet submitted bills.  Meanwhile, the state park system is starving for dollars.

The Legislature cut off all general-fund support for State Parks.  It then raided funds earmarked for operating expenses.  The parks’ operating budget has fallen from $26 million to $19 million.  Arizona State Parks is seeking public comments on a wide range of proposed fee hikes (go to azstateparks.com).

Gov. Jan Brewer appointed a task force to recommend ways to provide a sustainable stream of funding for the parks.  That’s not just operations: Maintenance is at the crisis point.  The report, due in October, should have a creative, practical, doable strategy.  Our cultural and recreational treasures are at risk.  In this tourist-oriented state, it would be truly foolish to lose them.