Still in crisis: the hits keep on coming for state parks

[Source: Parks & Recreation, by Richard J. Dolesh. Via: BNET]

The National Bureau of Economic Research, in a tortured bit of logic, declared in September that “the Recession is over.” Few observers of state and local economic conditions would agree, and the continuing cuts to the budgets of U.S. state park systems reflect the harsh reality that for the states, the recession is definitely not over. As state budget troubles continue, the outlook for most state park systems remains grim.

According to the recently released Biannual Fiscal Survey of the States of the National Governor’s Association and the National Association of State Budget Officers, revenues may have grown slightly in the past six months, but the lingering effects of the two worst years since the Great Depression have seriously compromised the ability of many states to provide traditional services to their citizens. The NGA report predicts states will continue to make budget cuts, including additional mid-stream cuts throughout FY 11, and asserts that to balance state budgets, states will either cut programs and services further or shift their costs to user fees or other sources of revenue.

Less than Stimulating Double-Whammy

Compounding the stagnant state economies is the double-whammy of the loss of federal stimulus funds. According to NGA, the federal funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that helped states pay teachers, fund state construction projects, and supplement law enforcement operations, increased the total federal share of states’ budgets from one quarter to one-third of their total budgets The stimulus ended January 1, and there is little sentiment in the U.S. Congress to provide additional bail-outs for the states and cities.

As if that were not enough, the near-term picture looks no better because many states are carrying huge debt loads from unfunded liabilities, such as pension obligations or debt service. California, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York top this list, but a number of other states are not far behind.

The cumulative effect of the state budget troubles has damaged many state park systems. Arizona state parks are facing the abyss with the state legislature having wiped out nearly two-thirds of the state parks budget in the past several years, laying off state park workers and closing a number of state parks, with more on the block in the coming fiscal year. California’s governor last year proposed closing up to 220 of 279 state parks when the legislature could not pass the state budget. Though Arnold Schwarzenegger quickly backed down in the face of fierce public reaction, funding for the state parks hangs by a thread. The resounding rejection last November of Prop 21 in California, a ballot measure to create a new vehicle registration fee that would have been dedicated to the state park system, has left supporters chagrined and the future of California state parks deeply uncertain.

In New York, a budget agreement by the legislature and the governor reversed the planned closure of more than 100 state parks; but recently, its governor announced another state park closure due to continuing budget troubles. In the coming year, Nevada and Idaho may be looking at closing state parks. Illinois, New Jersey, and other states may not be far behind.

No More Magic Bullets

What was once unthinkable–the closure of state parks because of budget shortfalls–has rapidly become a reality in many states.

The longer-term implications of the present state budget troubles do not bode well for the future health of many state park systems. Beset by an aging workforce, deteriorating infrastructure, and a growing maintenance backlog, a number of state park systems are turning to a variety of scorched earth policies to hold on. These include reducing staff, limiting hours of operation, reducing law enforcement patrol, and temporarily or permanently closing facilities within parks. Some systems have already begun to implement plans to privatize or lease state parks and this is a trend that is expected to grow. Others are planning to lease state parks to local governments or nonprofit organizations, and some are considering plans to contract operations of entire state parks to private management companies.

Phil McNelly, executive director of the National Association of State Parks, notes that there will be 29 new governors taking office this month, the largest cohort of new governors in generations. “Change is imminent, no matter which party takes control,” McNelly predicts.

The new realities facing state parks include the serious issues of increased liability and risk management due to the reduced ability to provide law enforcement; the continuing deterioration of park infrastructure such as roads, bridges, buildings, and other public safety concerns; increasing revenues to supplement operating funds when there is little or no prospect of capital funding for upgrading facilities that do produce revenue.

Bright Spots

While most of the news about state parks remains bleak, there are some bright spots on the horizon. Some states have dealt with the crisis better than others because they have taken innovative approaches to creating long-term sustainable funding mechanisms. Although the California ballot measure to dedicate funds from a vehicle state park pass failed, in Michigan, a more modest proposal based on a similar program in Montana, passed the legislature and is expected to generate between $20 million and $40 million in dedicated funds for the state park system. A crucial difference between Michigan’s program and California’s proposal is that Michigan’s is voluntary, In Michigan, a state resident can opt in to pay for the annual pass; California’s would have been mandatory. Post-election surveys in California note that voters objected to “ballot-box budgeting,” rejecting Prop 21 by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin.

Recent developments in Georgia offer a good example for a sustainable path to long-term funding for state parks, Faced with a crushing 46 percent cut in general funds since 2008. Georgia state parks were directed by the governor and legislature to “pursue a strategy of self-sufficiency,” according to state park director Becky Kelley. The state park system responded with a business plan entitled “Direction 2015” which identifies 60 park sites for study over the next three years through evaluating needs, analyzing capacity, and producing business plans for each park in order to bring these sites to full self-sufficiency. “We are trying to transition to the future while protecting and enhancing our natural and cultural assets in a way that is sensitive to the needs of local communities, promotes local economies, and is responsive to protecting our treasured resources,” Kelley says.

An analysis of the economic benefit of the Georgia state park system by state economic development office shows over $650 million in economic benefit to the state and 7,000-8,000 jobs that are dependent on or related to the state parks. “We need to take control of our own destiny,” Kelley says, “There are no longer any magic bullets.”

Other states are implementing similar plans to increase the ability of the state parks to generate revenues through fees and charges. They are increasingly engaging outside consultants from the private sector in golf, hospitality, and other fields, and are engaging the support of elected officials and local governments to tangibly show the extraordinary economic value of parks to the state’s economy.

Ever Popular by any Measure

Despite the negative projections for state parks funding over the short term, public support for parks and conservation remains high, Visitation to state and local parks continues to grow, while the recent passage of a dedicated tax in Iowa for conservation and the continuing 75 percent rate of passage for bond issues and referenda related to parks and open space across the country demonstrates resounding public support for parks. Such support is crucial, as recent events in Virginia have shown. When incoming governor Bob McDonnell announced the closing of five state parks shortly after taking office, the Virginia Association for Parks and other citizen advocacy groups turned the governor’s opinion around, a development that led ultimately to the rescinding of closures and a modest increase in the state parks’ budget.

The worst may yet be to come for state park budgets over the next few years, but park systems that can demonstrate resiliency and innovation by improving their ability to generate revenues and by building the highest possible level of public support will weather this current storm.

RICHARD J. DOLESH is NRPA Chief of Public Policy.

Arizona privatization report not done yet


Governor Jan Brewer’s Commission on Privatization will miss its deadline to recommend what the state should do to cut its budget.

The Governor hoped for a final report by December 31st. But a spokesman says the report isn’t done.

One of the options the commission is investigating is the idea to privatize state parks.

Visitors at Catalina State Park have mixed opinions.

Jim Clarke is a regular at Catalina State Park. He says he hiked here before it was a park.

“I think this park works very well the way it is,” Clarke says. “The old cliché {says} if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Clarke opposes privatization. He says, “I don’t like it, mainly because privatizing to me means for profit.”

Canadian Roy Moor camps at Catalina State Park every winter. He also stays at private campgrounds.

Moor says, “Private parks tend to offer more amenities and tend to be more expensive. State parks offer an opportunity to really experience nature.”

Faced with a big budget deficit, Governor Brewer created the state cost cutting committee called COPE, the Commission on Privatization and Efficiency. Its initial report discussed privatizing state parks.

Park users like Chris Hanson are we’re still waiting to see what the final report says. He says, “I’m not against it conceptually. It would depend completely upon the details of it, how they’re going to actually run the park, what it would entail, what would be privatized, how it would affect the use.”

Commission Chairman Mark Brnovich says the group is looking at questions including, “Is there a better way to fund the parks and is there a better way to make sure the parks are kept open and providing the public the maximum amount of services possible.”

Digging deeper, already many Arizona parks have public-private partnerships.

Arizona State Parks have 30 properties. But only nine of them are fully operated and staffed by parks staff. Nine others are operated by parks staff with support from a nonprofit or local government. Others have been totally turned over to local governments or nonprofits. Others have been closed.


Daily Courier’s Top Stories of 2010—No. 5: The Economy, from closed parks to unemployment

Arizona State Parks/Courtesy photoJerome State Historic Park had closed in 2009 because of state budget cuts and the need for major repairs. It did reopen, however, on Oct. 14, 2010.
Arizona State Parks/Courtesy photo

[Source: Joanna Dodder NellansPrescott Daily Courier]

After the Arizona Legislature swept $8.6 million from its State Parks to help prop up its ailing general fund, the State Parks Board decided in January it had no choice but to close 13 more of its 27 parks.

Four state parks had already closed in 2009, including Jerome State Historic Park, home to a mining museum in the 100-year-old Douglas mansion, during mansion renovations.

The Parks Board voted to close Red Rocks State Park near Sedona on June 3. It is a 286-acre nature preserve along Oak Creek. It was $202,000 in the red last year.

The board decided not to close parks that make money, including the 423-acre Dead Horse State Park along the Verde River in Cottonwood. It was $19,000 in the black last year.

The board also decided in January that the neighboring 480-acre Verde River Greenway State Natural Area would remain open, too, but State Parks officials decided to manage it “passively,” without patrols or improvements, said Renee Bahl, Arizona State Parks executive director.

The Parks Board gave at least one state park in Yavapai County, Fort Verde, a temporary reprieve.

By Feb. 22, two more parks had closed.

Throughout the remainder of 2010, local communities and counties including Yavapai negotiated with the state to keep some of the parks open and reopen others.

A last-ditch effort by Rep. Andy Tobin of Paulden to find more state money for the parks didn’t work. Toward the end of the Legislature’s 2010 session in April, Tobin tried to use money from the state’s “Growing Smarter” fund for the parks. Democrats killed the measure, saying it would have allowed use of voter-approved money for a purpose unrelated to the purchase of open space.

Later that month, the state’s iconic Arizona Highways Magazine launched an effort to help the parks by donating $5 of every new annual $24 subscription to the parks.

In all, the Arizona Legislature cut state park money from $28 million a few years ago to $18 million.

State Parks officials say their parks pump $266 million into rural Arizona economies by attracting 2.3 million visitors annually and producing 3,000 leisure jobs.

That includes $36.6 million for Yavapai County’s economy and 494 jobs here, according to a State Parks study.

By May, the Arizona State Parks board already had cut enough deals with local communities and supporters to keep all but five of the parks from being closed.

A Yavapai County coalition won the governor’s Innovation in Economic Development award in October for finding a way to keep the Fort Verde and Red Rock state parks open and to re-open Jerome’s. The county joined forces with local municipalities, historical societies and support groups.

All five of the state parks in Yavapai County are located in the Verde Valley and Sedona regions, so Yavapai County Supervisor Chip Davis of Cottonwood was instrumental in those parks negotiations.

Apache and Santa Cruz were the first counties to offer deals to keep their parks open. Apache offered money to keep Lyman Lake open, and Santa Cruz offered to operate the park that is home to the historic Tubac Presidio, for example.

Payson and other local supporters joined monetary forces to keep Tonto Natural Bridge from closing in September.

One Indian tribe, the Hopi, also got involved after the state closed Homolovi Ruins State Park, home to Hopi ancestors. The tribe, one of the few in Arizona without a casino, initially provided $175,000 for the park in October.

The state bought Homolovi in 1993 to stop looting of its ancient pueblos.

“Hopi became worried that once again, the pot hunters could start desecrating our ancient homelands,” said Cedric Kuwaninvaya, a Hopi council member.

Editorial: Arizona’s Budget Solutions Increasingly Dire

[Editor’s Note: While the Arizona Heritage Alliance has serious reservations and questions about privatization of state agencies, we offer the reader what’s being said and written about the topic — and other related topics — from news and editorial pages from across the state.  The source of the following editorial is the Prescott Daily Courier.]

When Arizona lawmakers said “tough decisions” are ahead in dealing with the state budget, they were not kidding. Arizona currently faces an estimated shortfall of nearly $900 million and, with education taking the lion’s share of the budget, cuts likely will be deep and painful.

Enter into the equation two recommendations the 11-member state commission on privatization and efficiency has floated: privatizing at least some state parks and increasing the state’s use of privately operated prisons.

The panel’s members have not projected potential savings – they submitted a preliminary report several months ago and now are preparing a larger report due Dec. 31 – but one of the two “targets” appears to be rather simple, and the other certainly would be contentious.

The first – privatizing some state parks – is the rather simple one. Yavapai County Supervisor Carol Springer is a member of the commission, and it was Yavapai County that was part of a partnership that saved state parks from the budget axe.

The partnership included Yavapai County government, the Arizona State Parks Board, the Town of Jerome, Town of Camp Verde, City of Sedona, Camp Verde Historical Society, Jerome Historical Society, Concerned Citizens of the Verde Valley and the Benefactors of Red Rock State Park. They kept open Fort Verde State Historic Park in Camp Verde and Red Rock State Park in Sedona, and reopened Jerome State Historic Park in Jerome.

Was it a private effort? No. However, these three parks attract more than 150,000 visitors each year and if the state can find more entities, even private ones, to take on the task – more power to them.

The sticky concept of utilizing more private prisons is an unpopular one locally and statewide.

It was in Prescott Valley that an effort failed this past spring to bring a prison to a site just outside of the town’s boundaries. Widespread public opposition and lack of support from a majority of the Prescott Valley Town Council prompted prison officials to abandon the site.

Also, the topic became even more controversial across the West after the July 30 escape of three violent offenders from a private prison near Kingman. Serious lapses were found in both the prison’s security operations and the state’s monitoring, according to the Associated Press. The escapees were recaptured but two of them and an accomplice are accused of committing a double homicide in New Mexico while at large.

Arizona uses private prisons to house about 5,500 of its 40,000 inmates, but expanding the use of private prisons is an uphill battle.

Yes, privatize the parks – as long as the responsible party maintains service. For the prisons, good luck. That will be about as popular as cutting financing for education, which legislators have said is not off the table.  What’s certain is the state is running out of options.

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