Audit: Arizona state parks need more funds, visitors

[Source: Yvonne Wingett-Sanchez, The Arizona Republic] – The future of Arizona’s state parks is at risk, a new audit says, and their long-term financial sustainability depends on expanded partnerships and marketing efforts.

An Auditor General’s Office report released Wednesday portrayed the parks system as in dire need of funding. The Legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer cut funding to about $25.7 million last fiscal year from about $54.7 million in fiscal 2008, the report said. The audit also found that low and declining visitation was among the factors that pose long-term risks for the parks. Auditors recommended the Arizona State Parks Board, which manages the state’s 30 parks, continue to expand partnerships with local governments and organizations and create a new marketing campaign to showcase the parks. Auditors also said the board should study how the parks system can become more financially sustainable.

The 30 state parks cover a total of 62,000 acres, with 28 percent of the land owned by the state and 72 percent leased or under easement from federal and state entities. There are four types of parks, ranging from environmental-education parks such as Boyce Thompson Arboretum to recreation areas such as Kartchner Caverns. About 2 million people visited the state parks in fiscal 2011, the report said.

Cristie Statler, executive director of the Arizona State Parks Foundation, said the audit results were no surprise given years of deep budget cuts to parks funding by the governor and lawmakers. “They swept entrance fees, gift-shop money, donations, as well as eliminated the $10 million annual Heritage Fund allocation to state parks,” she said. Statler pointed out that, time and again, surveys say Arizonans overwhelmingly support state parks and open spaces and believe such areas add to a region’s economic health. “The only reason we have state parks open right now is because partners around the state, municipalities and non-profits, have supported … a huge number of state parks — about 19 across the state,” Statler said. “Were it not for these partnerships — I kid you not — these parks would be closed.”

In some partnerships, for example, cities will agree to share certain park expenses. Statler said she understands the need to continue to expand such partnerships but questioned auditors’ recommendation of a marketing campaign. “If you don’t have money, how can you promote the parks?” she asked. “To admonish the state parks board or direct them to continue to expand partnerships is to relinquish any state responsibility for the state’s park system.”

The audit also found:

• Arizona has one of the lowest number of park visits among Western states, and state parks compete with many national and local parks for visitors.

• The loss of state funding for park operations has created a need for the system to transition from being supplemented from state coffers to earning enough revenue to cover its own operating expenses. Historically, park revenue has not covered operating expenditures, until recently.

• The board has taken steps to increase revenue, including adding electrical hookups at campsites, an improved reservations system and a new fee schedule that charges lower fees to attract campers during the off-season and higher fees when sites are at a premium.

Small cities struggle with historic preservation efforts

[Source: John Yantis, AZ Republic] – The wrecking ball often swings faster in smaller cities trying to save history, preservationists and local leaders say. Money, know-how, constantly changing priorities and new residents with shallow roots in the community often hinder efforts to protect historic architecture and cultural sites. The dilemma leaves longtime residents disappointed and frustrates efforts to save local landmarks.

In June, former students failed to save an auditorium-turned gymnasium in Litchfield Park. Constructed in 1928, the gym was a reminder of the city’s early days. A month later, Buckeye officials voted to demolish a cotton gin that was also built in 1928. After the decision, a town councilman wondered aloud why Buckeye bothers to advertise its historic past. “The gin is just a rusty building,” said Councilman Robert Garza, a fifth-generation native of Buckeye. “But it is part of our heritage.”

Preservation can present challenges in larger cities, too. In Mesa, organized efforts to save historic sites began in the mid-1990s, but advocates said they only came after the city lost numerous noteworthy buildings, including a social hall, park and school.

Impediments to saving history in smaller cities are usually more acute. They often start too late. “It can happen at all different levels, but I think small communities haven’t spent a lot (of) time inventorying,” said James Garrison, state historic-preservation officer.

“They’re interested in growth and new things and attracting businesses and doing all these things and often don’t take a look around at what might fit a new use or be available for adaptive reuse.” Adaptive reuse is a process that allows older buildings to be used for new purposes while retaining their historic features.

Many large cities have preservation officers and commissions that allow experts to plan and look for properties that could become endangered, Garrison said. Smaller towns’ historic sites often go vacant, which escalates the cost to fix them up. Buildings left empty deteriorate quickly and are often vandalized. Also, often there is little practical discussion about what they will be used for. Every property can’t become a museum, but these sites still need an active life in the community, Garrison said.

Financial challenges – Preservation efforts in Arizona were recently complicated after a state-funding source dried up. In 2010, the governor and state Legislature stripped a portion of Arizona’s Heritage Fund that provided $1.5 million in grants for cities to find, preserve, stabilize and rehabilitate buildings and other historic sites. The fund was made up of lottery proceeds approved by voters in 1990.

The Arizona Heritage Alliance and others are working to restore the fund, which is administered by the Arizona State Parks Board. The Arizona Preservation Foundation, a group of volunteer preservation advocates, did not gather enough signatures to get the issue on the November ballot. They plan to get the issue on the ballot in 2014.

As public money for preservation becomes more scarce, some cities have unsuccessfully tried to find private financing. In Goodyear, a years-long effort to restore the Litchfield Train Station is taking a new direction after backers had difficulty raising enough money through raffles and car and train shows. Members of the city’s Centennial Commission decided in May to form a non-profit foundation, said Wally Campbell, a city councilwoman who serves on the board. Supporters hope the foundation will qualify for grants. Someday, foundation officials hope it will be part of a train park for children. “We’re excited about it, but we’re moving forward slowly,” Campbell said. The 1,900-square-foot station was built in the 1920s by the Southern Pacific Railroad. In 2009, the city moved the depot 3 miles from its original location, to an area near the intersection of Cotton Lane and Maricopa 85.

Ever-changing plans – In Buckeye, evolving city plans have frustrated historic-preservation efforts. For years, informal town plans called for turning the Eastman Gin into a museum and downtown gateway to showcase the area’s agricultural heritage. Town officials spent more than $2 million to buy the gin and surrounding property. In the end, renovating the landmark, which was once used to separate cotton from its seeds, was too costly. Demolition is expected to begin in early September. For Garza, it was the latest example of shifting priorities. “It’s hard because Buckeye went through a giant boom, and we had a big influx of people from outside,” he said. “They didn’t necessarily see what we saw in our community, in our history, in our culture.”

Successful saves – Jim McPherson, president of the Arizona Preservation Foundation, says there is greater awareness about the importance of historic preservation in smaller cities. Officials and the public are more focused on sustainability and adapting buildings to be reused, he said. Old Main, a 90-year-old vacant building on Peoria High’s campus, will be saved. About $1.6 million will be spent to save the building.

Phoenix has used bond money to renovate many historic structures, McPherson said.

And earlier this month, Litchfield Park struck a deal with the school district that will ensure the protection of a mission-style church built in the early 1920s. Unfortunately, some historic sites in small towns can’t be saved, McPherson said. “We hurt every time that happens because that’s one more strike against our heritage in a state that’s relatively new,” McPherson said.

Voluntary fee for Arizona state parks off ballot

[Source: Jim Cross, KTAR] –Arizonans will not get the chance to vote on a voluntary fee to fund the state’s parks. The campaign to put the issue on the ballot ran out of money to hire paid circulators and fell short of the number of signatures needed.

The initiative would have asked voters to approve a $14 surcharge, added to the cost of each vehicle registration fee. That surcharge would have been voluntary and drivers would have to opt out by checking a box on the renewal form to avoid paying for it.

Christie Statler with the Arizona State Parks Foundation said Arizona’s parks are not in immediate jeopardy, but if the state raids the parks budget in the future, they will be. “This park system is a house of cards and could fold,” she said.

Lawmakers have refused to provide tax dollars to support the park system and took some of the money parks raised from admissions to help balance the budget in recent years.

A 2009 task force’s report to the governor said the parks system is threatened with extinction and cannot survive under a roller-coaster funding system. Statler said it was true then and and it is true now. “We have watched legislative sweeps that have reduced the ability of the park system to function,” she said. “All it would take is another sweep of funds to reduce the park system entirely. They’re operating on dental floss.”  Statler said the state parks system pumps about $250 million into the Arizona economy each year.

Initiative to fund Arizona state parks fails to make ballot

[Source: Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services] –Arizonans are not going to get a chance to vote on whether they want to fund state parks with a surcharge on vehicle registration fees. Bill Meek, president of the Arizona Parks Foundation, said Tuesday the initiative campaign ran out of money about two weeks ago to hire paid circulators. “We had a really good army of volunteers,” he said. But Meek said that was insufficient to gather the 172,809 valid signatures needed by Thursday to put the question on the ballot.

Meek said, though, that is not the end of the issue. He said supporters of the plan will ask lawmakers next year to refer the issue to voters in 2014, bypassing the need to circulate petitions. The question of funding remains significant because lawmakers, looking for ways to balance the state budget in prior years, have refused to provide tax dollars to support the parks system. Complicating matters, legislators even took some of the money that had been raised from admission and other fees.

A 2009 task force report to Gov. Jan Brewer concluded that the parks system “is threatened with extinction and cannot survive under a roller-coaster system of financial support.”

The initiative had two key provisions.

One would have imposed a $14 surcharge added to the cost of each vehicle registration fee. That fee would be voluntary — but motorists would have to affirmatively opt out by checking a box on the renewal form to avoid paying it. Meek said states with similar systems manage to get anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of drivers agreeing to the additional fee. While Meek had no specific figures of what the fee might raise, that 2009 report estimated that even if half of motorists opt out, that could still raise $40 million a year.

The second half would make anything the parks system raised, whether from the vehicle license surcharge or admission fees, off limits to legislative raiding. Meek said he had hoped to line up sufficient major donors to get the signatures.

The idea of the registration fee is not new. In fact, it was part of the recommendations in that 2009 report to Brewer. Meek conceded there is probably no way lawmakers themselves would ever approve the plan — even with the opt-out provision — as many have taken a “no tax hike” pledge. Meek disputed, though, that it is a tax. But he said they might be willing to give voters a chance to weigh in by simply voting to put the issue on the ballot.

That logic worked in 2010 when lawmakers agreed to let voters decide whether to impose a temporary one-cent hike in the state sales tax. Several legislators who supported referring the issue to the ballot later said they voted against it in the special election that year. Meek, however, has an uphill fight, even to get that Referral.

A version of the vehicle license surcharge gained the support the following year by the House Committee on Natural Resources and Rural Affairs in 2010. But the full House refused to go along — or even send the question to the ballot.