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

Tubac state park avoids closure, for now

Tubac Presidio State Historic Park

[Source: Green Valley News] — Tubac Presidio State Historic Park was among eight state parks that saw a reprieve Tuesday after the parks board said it would look at other options before closing the doors to save money.  State parks director Ken Travous went into Tuesday’s meeting with a list of eight locations recommended for closure based on visitor counts and operating costs.  The agency is struggling with a deficit projected to reach $647,000 by June.  “We need to make up a lot of money real fast,” Travous said.  “We’re out of time.”

Rather than endorsing the plan, the board asked Arizona State Parks to look at options such as employee furloughs and cutting park hours before it takes up the issue again Feb. 20.  “We need a bigger menu of options,” said State Land Commissioner Mark Winkleman, a member of the board.

Along with Tubac, Travous proposed closing Riordan Mansion State Historic Park in Flagstaff, Fort Verde State Historic Park in Camp Verde, Homolovi Ruins State Park in Winslow, Lyman Lake State Park in Springerville, McFarland State Historic in Florence, Oracle State Park, and Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park.

Garry Hembree, a 27-year resident of Tubac and president of the Tubac Chamber of Commerce, said he found the proposal upsetting.  “The people who established the state park knew the historical significance of it and knew that it was important enough to open Arizona’s first state park,” he said.  “I just think that for that reason, regardless of the attendance or anything else, it’s worth preserving.”  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

Viewpoint: Regional rescue plan needed to keep Fort Verde state park open

Fort Verde State Historic Park

[Source: Dan Engler, Editor, Verde News] — Talk of government budget cuts are often like the boy who cried wolf.  They’re designed to attract attention.  They are the means to an end.  Such was the case the last time the folks from Arizona State Parks announced plans to close some of our state parks in the Verde Valley.  It was March 1991 and both Fort Verde and Dead Horse State Parks were on the chopping block.  At least that was what we were told by Arizona State Parks.

It caused an uproar.  More than 100 folks showed up to a public meeting in Cottonwood to protest the closing of Dead Horse. There, we learned courtesy of former District 1 Rep. Don Aldridge, that State Parks was playing poker.  The strategy, Aldridge explained, was to create controversy in various communities throughout the state to stimulate political pressure to preserve, or even bolster, the budget of State Parks.  Aldridge characterized it as bureaucratic gamesmanship and outright scare tactics.

In the end, Aldridge was proved right when former Gov. Fife Symington devised a plan to earmark 50 percent of State Parks’ acquisition of development fund to maintain the operation of the existing parks, Fort Verde and Dead Horse among them. State Parks simply was given permission to shift funds from one portion of its budget — the Kartchner Caverns slush fund — to another to stem the early ’90s so-called budget crisis.

The boy who cried wolf was exposed.  His bluff was called.  This time, it’s different.  This is not a case of crying wolf.  This budget crisis is the real thing.  [Note: To read the full article, click here.]