Roper, 7 other Arizona parks to remain open for now

[Source: Diane Saunders, Wick Communications] — Roper Lake State Park south of Safford dodged an economic bullet Feb. 4 when the Arizona State Parks Board decided not to close eight state parks in an effort to help the state budget crisis.  Instead, the State Parks Board will examine other ways to overcome a budget deficit at its Feb. 20 meeting, according to the department’s Web site.  Roper Lake and seven other Arizona state parks were targeted for closure after the Arizona Legislature decided to divert money from the agency to help balance the state’s budget.

According to the Arizona State Parks Department, Roper is one of the costliest parks in Arizona to operate. Nearly 86,000 people visit Roper each year, however, the cost to the state is $2.51 per visitor.  In comparison, Arizona’s costliest park to operate is McFarland State Historical Park in Pinal County.  That park draws 4,945 visitors a year and it costs the state $37.94 per visitor to operate, according to the Arizona State Parks Department.  Only two of Arizona’s state parks make money – Catalina in Pima County and Kartchner Caverns in Cochise County.  Catalina has 168,874 visitors a year and makes a profit of 90 cents per visitor.  Kartchner draws 160,013 visitors a year and makes $2.51 per visitor.

Ellen Bilbery, spokeswoman for the State Parks Department, said Arizona’s state park system was set up 52 years ago as a way to draw visitors to cities and towns in Arizona while protecting the state’s natural features and wildlife.  Making money for the state was not the main reason the parks were opened.

The history of the park system, however, does not help the current financial crisis in Arizona.  To balance the state’s budget, Arizona government is “sweeping” money from a variety of funds, including county and municipal budgets, to eliminate state budget deficits this year and next fiscal year, which begins July 1, local and state officials say.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

No Arizona state funds for rebuilding Parker pool

[Source: John Gutekunst, Parker Pioneer] — The Arizona State Parks Department has informed the Town of Parker they will not be providing funds to rebuild the town’s pool.  In an e-mail sent Feb. 2 to Community Development Director Guy Gorman, the parks department said that, due to the state’s budget problems, they were suspending further expenditures on projects funded with grants from the department.  The e-mail stated the legislature had cut funding for the Heritage Grant program. 

Heritage Grant and State Lake Improvement Fund recipients were told to halt construction if state funds were critical to the completion of the project.  The town had planned to use a State Parks Heritage Grant to rebuild the pool.  The grant was awarded in 2006.  The plan was to have the pool ready and open by this summer.  The current pool has deteriorated to the point where it has been closed since 2003.  “This legislative action comes with great disappointment to the community,” Mayor Karen Bonds said in a prepared statement. “Many hours of effort by so many have already been put into this project.”  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

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.]

Concerned citizen speaks out about latest “raid” on Arizona Heritage Fund

Below is a letter to Arizona’s Governor and state legislators from a concerned citizen about the potential impact of the state’s recent ’09 budget agreement on Arizona State Parks and the Arizona Heritage Alliance.  AHA received permission from the author to reprint it here.

Dear Governor Brewer:

This is not the first time the legislature has tried to raid Heritage Funds from Arizona State Parks.  But this time they did it so quickly and quietly “to balance the state budget deficit” that no one had the chance to make them stop and think about the consequences.

As a result, the State Parks Board, a very caring and forwarding thinking group of people, are left to deal with the mess that our legislature has handed them.  They have until February 20th to figure it out.  And I don’t know how they’re going to do it.

Will the Parks Board close seven state parks for good, or close all state parks a few days a week (hopefully not on the weekends), or will they pull a rabbit out of their collective hat to magically generate additional revenue to support themselves without taxpayer money?  I don’t know what they will do.  What I do know is that they deserve a whole lot of credit for not throwing their hands in the air and walking away from the big mess they have been handed.

Heritage Funds support our parks and historic preservation efforts, two very forward-thinking investments in the social and cultural life of our state.  The Fund has benefitted and could continue to benefit every legislative district in the state.  With tourism as one of our largest economic generators, both parks and history matter — to those who live here and to those who vacation here.  But none of those people seem to matter to our current legislature.

What matters is cutting numbers.  And, in doing that, our legislature has stopped work under every Heritage Grant underway.  The announcement came on February 2nd that all work was to stop as of February 1st.  (That is a neat trick in itself, traveling back in time like that.)

An even neater trick is that they called a stop to these grants, which all had legally executed contracts and legally recorded easements.  The easements state that Heritage grant funds “went” into those properties.  But as of February 1st, under our new balanced state budget, there seem to be no Heritage Funds to go into those properties.  The State Parks Board is looking into the legalities of severing contracts before presenting its revised departmental budget with what monies remain after the legislative sweep.

Legal difficulties aside, there are economic ramifications — exactly what you don’t want in our sluggish economy.  Let’s use a grant to Catlin Court Historic District in Glendale as the example.  If the state pulls Heritage matching funds (40% of the project cost), the property owner will not spend their matching funds (50%), and the City of Glendale will not spend their match (10%).  One hundred percent of that money will not stimulate our slow economy as the contractor ready to do the restoration work will not get paid (nor will he or she pay taxes on the work that he or she won’t do.)

The property itself will continue to deteriorate, adding nothing to the value of the neighborhood, the city, nor the state.  Where’s the tourism value in any of that?  And what is the loss in state revenue that occurs as a result of lessened tourism?

And apart from economics, and even apart from legalities, what does this one thoughtless budget cut by our legislature do to our quality of life in the long run?

In an emergency meeting today, one of the members of the State Parks Board said something along the lines of: We can’t think about 2010; we have five months of 2009 that we need to think about right now.  That was not a curt remark.  Far from it.  The man was pained to say it.  The State Parks Board has been placed in a tight spot and they are struggling to find a way out, right now.  They cannot think about the future until they figure out how to deal with the present.

It’s a crime to do that to such a forward-thinking bunch, to those who are planning a healthy future for Arizona, with parks and historic preservation, with recreational opportunities for our future generations and some history to anchor all of us in Arizona’s past.

We have very little history here in metro Phoenix.  And when we have none, when nothing gives us a reason to look back or to look to the future, we will all be as shortsighted as our current legislature seems to be today.

Rethink it, please.  Restore Heritage funding to State Parks.

Maureen Rooney