Push to protect Arizona’s parks from budget cuts gains steam

[Source: Shaun McKinnon, AZ Republic, Page 1] –  Arizonans overwhelmingly support state parks and open spaces and believe such areas contribute to a region’s economic health, but few people understand how the state pays for its parks, a new survey says. That lack of knowledge could imperil a parks system already weakened by budget cuts if lawmakers don’t hear from enough voters who want open spaces protected, according to Arizona Forward, a newly organized group that commissioned the survey.

“Nothing is stronger than grass roots, with people calling their elected officials saying, ‘This is important to me, I want my parks to be open,’ ” said Diane Brossart, acting director of the group. “But I think we take these things for granted, and until there’s a crisis, people are not engaged with the issues.” [to read the full article click here].

Community involvement keeps threatened Arizona parks open

[Source: Mark Duncan, Enterprise Reporter, the Daily Courier] – A couple of years ago, the Arizona State Parks system found itself in a second-hand crisis, thanks to the general budgeting malaise that affected the whole of state government. With gargantuan deficits looming, the Legislature chose to “sweep” pretty much any and all available money from any and all “non-essential” departments, including the state parks department, which suddenly had some hard choices on its hands.

The directors there cut staffing and programs and looked for every possible way to make ends meet. In the end, though, they had to make a list they never thought they’d make – a list of parks that might have to close because they just couldn’t make ends meet on their own. On that list were Red Rocks State Park, one of four conservation parks statewide, and Fort Verde Historic State Park, one of the nine historic parks in the system.

Well, the folks of Sedona and Camp Verde weren’t going to let that happen in their towns. And it just so happened that Yavapai County Supervisor Chip Davis had stashed away some money from cable television franchise fees – money that was earmarked for parks and recreation activities. With the blessing of the other two supervisors, he pledged $30,000 per year to each of the two parks.

In Sedona, as the staff of state employees was cut in half, the community came alive in support of the park. In addition to the county money, the City of Sedona contributed $15,000 and the Sedona Community Foundation added $10,000, and a group called the Benefactors of Red Rock State Park came up with $145,000 in donations large and small, including $15,000 from a family foundation that paid for a part-time ranger to run the school program [to read the full article click here].

Arizona State Parks: Big Money Problems

[Source: Tucson Weekly, Jim Nintzel] – Here’s the good news from the State Parks Board meeting this week in Tucson: Despite more sweeps of the parks’ funds by the Arizona Legislature, all of the state parks that are now open will remain open next fiscal year. The Joint Legislative Budget Committee agreed earlier this month to allow the State Parks Department to shift some funds around so the agency would have enough funds to handle payroll and other other expenses.

Here’s the bad news: The parks are continuing to run on a shoestring and the current path is a road to disaster. “We can’t go on every year like this and try to sustain a statewide park system,” said board member William Scalzo.

The GOP-led Legislature has whittled away at the parks’ funds for years now. The parks used to get $10 million a year in lottery dollars, but that has been redirected by the Legislature. And in the upcoming budget year, lawmakers swiped a portion of the gate fees from the parks, as well as some of the money from the parks State Lake Improvement Fund.

At this point, the department has no money for any capital improvements—new campgrounds, improved sewer systems, historic renovation. The parks had $150 million in unmet capital needs in 2007; State Parks Director Renée Bahl says that number is even higher today, but the department doesn’t have enough money to even survey the needs.

Several parks are open because local governments, business leaders and non-profits have stepped up to help. The partners have been “fantastic,” says Bahl, but the arrangement “was a bridge, and there’s only so long a bridge can go.” Several board members talked about the dangers of “partnership fatigue” and the likelihood that local governments, with their own financial pressures, would not be able to keep helping out over the long term.

That, in turn, is bad news for rural economies. There’s reason that local governments and businesses want the parks to remain open: They are a big boost to tourism—and outside tax dollars—for rural communities. But board members also acknowledged the reality that lawmakers weren’t likely to either dramatically increase funding for parks or put a proposition on the ballot to create a dedicated funding stream—such as a small fee on license plates, which was floated as an idea last year.

Board members and parks staff ended the meeting yesterday talking about the possibility of a ballot initiative that would dedicate dollars for the parks system. There are several conservation-oriented ballot drives being formulated around the state and park supporters are looking into whether they can join forces with one of the efforts. “We want a sustainable, non-sweep-able revenue source,” said board member Larry Landry.

Arizona State senate budget proposal would transfer millions away from state parks

[Source: ABC15.com, Mike Pelton] – State parks across Arizona could face a financial nightmare if a senate budget proposal passes, members of the state parks board said Wednesday. The Arizona Senate passed a budget proposal for next year and, in an attempt to balance the budget, proposed transferring money from state parks to the general fund.

“State parks is not only an enterprise agency but an economic engine,” said Tracey Westerhausen, chairman of the state parks board. Westerhausen said the senate’s budget proposal would transfer more than $3 million that state parks generate from the public, and transfer it to the general fund for other uses. “It’s hard for us to run like a business when the money we generate would be taken away,” she said. Westerhausen cited the importance of state parks for the economy. Parks often draw tourists out to rural areas around the state, bringing money with them.

“The Lost Dutchman state park is very important, not just to this business but the entire community,” said Mark LeReshe, who owns Superstition Harley Davidson in Apache Junction, just miles from the Lost Dutchman park.

ABC15 contacted members of the state senate, who refused to comment on the issue. State parks is only one area the senate budget proposal suggests gathering additional funds from. Other industries would be affected as well, such as the department of health services. Business owners, such as LeReshe, said they will continue to help keep the parks open as best they can. LeReshe has helped raise thousands of dollars for Lost Dutchman. “We’re going to fight,” he said. “We’re going to fight to keep that park open.”

The state parks have faced financial trouble in recent years. Currently, 28 of the state’s 30 state parks are open. The senate’s budget proposal still has to go through the House, where it could face changes, before it heads to Governor Brewer’s desk.