Arizona state parks plug away without tax funds

[Source: Mary Jo Pitzel, Arizona Republic] – There’s no money to construct boat ramps at Lake Havasu State Park or fix a leaky roof at Kartchner Caverns’ visitor center.

Nor are all Arizona state parks open year-round, or even all week.

And any thought of expansion is a pipe dream, because the parks have gone five years and counting without any money from the state’s general fund.

But, really, things are OK with state parks. So says the agency director, as well as friends and supporters of the 31-property system, who rallied to help keep parks open in the face of apparently irreversible budget cuts.

Kept afloat by partnerships, fee increases and volunteer labor, state parks are a bit like the tattered flag that flaps over a hard-fought battleground. They’re still there. But questions persist about how long the alliances that sustain them will last.

“The business end of Arizona State Parks is very challenging,” said parks director Bryan Martyn. Without general-fund support, which was cut in 2009, it’s hard to predict how much money the system will have from year to year, he said.

For now, partnerships have worked well, said Bill Meek, president of the Arizona State Parks Foundation. But he wonders how long that will last.

“It’s debatable how long some of these partnerships will go,” he said. “Most are local governments, which have their own (budget) issues.”

Some of these partners question why local government is picking up the tab for a state operation, Meek added.

In Flagstaff, a partnership knitted together under the threat of shuttering a historic Arts and Crafts-era home has kept the Riordan Mansion State Historic Park open. The Arizona Historical Society took over operation of the 13,000-square-foot mansion, with assistance from the Riordan Action Network, a network of community supporters.

“State Parks (crews) were coming up here, and they were measuring all the windows for plywood,” said park manager Joe Meehan, recalling the days when the park teetered on the brink of closure. If the house is closed for a year, it reverts to the Riordan family, according to a stipulation written into the deed when the house was turned over to the state in 1986.

Supporters convened community meetings, and out of that grew the action network and a partnership with the historical society.

Meehan, a curator at the nearby Pioneer Museum in Flagstaff, split his time and moved to the mansion to take over as park manager.

“This park is very special to the community,” he said. “It is a showpiece, and it is a piece of art.”

It also is a big piece of Flagstaff history, built at the turn of the 20th century by the two brothers who ran an area lumber mill. Tim and Michael Riordan, along with their spouses, built two mirror-image houses, connected by a large common area they called “the cabin.” The sprawling mansion was nicknamed the “ultimate duplex,” boasting 40 rooms.

The mansion, one of several historic sites in the state parks’ portfolio, fit well with the historical society’s mission, said Bill Peterson, the historical society’s northern-division director.

The society signed a three-year agreement to run the mansion, saving it from closure at the height of the state’s deep budget cuts. The deal has been renewed for another three years.

Gwen Groth helped found the Riordan Action Network in 2009, propelled by her love of history and the mansion’s role in Flagstaff’s story.

The network counts a few hundred members, some even stretching to the Riordans’ home country of Ireland, but it has fallen to a small corps of locals to raise the money that has helped the mansion keep its doors open.

To date, the network has raised $70,000. In the early days, it paid for roof replacement and other maintenance costs.

But Groth said it’s been nearly a year since the group has had to contribute operating expenses, since the park was doing well on fees, concession proceeds and support from the historical society.

That’s freed up money for special projects, like supplies for the mansion’s many gardens and lighting for the courtyard, the site of weddings and other special events.

Between the network support and the partnership with the historical society, Riordan Mansion is faring well. Admission fees and collections from other events are up. The park got a big boost last fall when the federal government’s budget stalemate closed Grand Canyon National Park. Tourists were looking for alternatives, and Riordan was an easy option, Meehan said.

But is this arrangement strong enough to keep the park running in the long run?

“It’s tough,” Meehan said. “But it’s working right now. It’s worked for three years.”

That sense of uncertainty is common among other parks supporters.

Martyn said the parks have benefited from a $1 million appropriation that lawmakers negotiated in this year’s budget. A bill pushed by Sens. Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, and Steve Farley, D-Tucson, took a portion of the interest earned on the state’s “rainy-day fund” and split it evenly between the parks and the Commission on the Arts.

Martyn said the money allowed the agency to bring electricity to campgrounds at three parks, making them more attractive to visitors with recreational vehicles and campers.

“That $1 million will turn into $5 million over the next five years,” Martyn said, counting on an uptick from visitors with RVs.

However, there are no indications the appropriation will continue next year. And a reliable source of parks funding — money from boat-registration fees — could be redirected to county governments for lake improvements if House Bill 2149 becomes law.

Some of the partnerships are dialing back their financial contributions. For example, the Hopi Tribe used to provide $175,000 a year to Homolovi State Park, which is on the reservation. It’s now $50,000, Martyn said.

For the past three years, Yavapai County contributed $90,000 a year to help support the five state parks within its boundaries. Now, it’s nothing.

“They don’t have the money,” Martyn said.

As the support ebbs, the needs pile up.

The parks have $4 million in capital needs. Projects on the waiting list range from running a water line from Benson to Kartchner Caverns State Park to building gallows for Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park.

At the Parks Foundation, Meek takes some comfort from the business plans that have been developed for each of the parks. They are designed to help the parks maximize their revenue and make them self-sustaining.

He believes parks need to forget help from lawmakers “as long as the Republicans are running the Legislature.”

The parks’ long list of needs makes self-sufficiency a difficult goal.

“They have a whole bunch of capital needs just waiting to pounce on them,” Meek said. “They’re one circumstance from being shut down.

“What happens when the wastewater system at Buckskin (Mountain State Park) breaks and starts spewing into the Colorado River?”


County, state parks OK after big storms

[Source: John Stanley, The Arizona Republic]

Anyone headed out to enjoy county or state parks or hike the Grand Canyon this weekend should encounter few, if any, problems from this week’s violent storms.

Storms dumped plenty of rain and hail, but there were no reports of significant damage in Maricopa County and Arizona State parks, officials said.

“It was pretty violent,” said John Gunn, supervisor at Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area, north of Cave Creek. “In the nine years I’ve been here at Spur Cross, I’ve never seen it rain that hard. It was unbelievable, nearly whiteout conditions.”

Although hail at the park “pounded the trees pretty good,” he said, the storm did no other damage.

None of the trails is closed at the 2,154-acre park.

None of the other members of the park system reported any damage, according to Maricopa County Parks spokeswoman Dawna Taylor.

The Los Alamos Day Use Area at Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood was closed temporarily due to flooding, but is now open, according to Ellen Bilbrey, spokeswoman for the state park system. The park itself was never closed.

The Verde River Greenway Complex, temporarily inaccessible due to high water, is also open again.

There were no other reports of damage to state park trails or properties, Bilbrey said.

At the Grand Canyon, a little hail was reported at Desert View, at the east end of the park, but the weather wasn’t bad at the South Rim, Grand Canyon National Park spokeswoman Maureen Oltrogge said.

All trails in the Canyon are open, as are all facilities.

The lodge on the North Rim lost electrical power Tuesday afternoon. Power has been restored, said Shannon Marcak, also a spokeswoman for the park. The North Rim will close for the season next Saturday.

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Grand Canyon Quarter Launched In Park Ceremony

[Source: NPS Digest]

On Tuesday, September 21st,  U.S. Mint, National Park Service and State of Arizona officials commemorated the launch of the Grand Canyon quarter, the fourth in the America the Beautiful quarter-dollar series, in a ceremony at the park.

It was a perfect fall day and the event was well attended by park staff, residents and visitors, as well as numerous classes from Grand Canyon schools. The event was held on the South Rim between the Hopi House and new Verkamp’s Visitor Center.

Highlights included Grand Canyon Mounted Patrol presenting the United States and Arizona flags; the seventh grade class leading the Pledge of Allegiance; remarks by Superintendent Steve Martin, U.S. Mint Director Edmund Moy, Arizona State Parks Executive Director Renée Bahl, Arizona Office of Tourism Director Sherry Henry, and writer/author Scott Thybony; performances by the Pollen Trail Dancers; a ceremonial coin pour in to a Navajo basket; and the traditional distribution of free coins to youth and a coin exchange for adults.

“Throughout history, coins have depicted famous people, historical events and important places,” said Martin. “So, we were honored when Grand Canyon National Park was chosen for an America the Beautiful quarter.”

The design for the quarter features the granaries above the Nankoweap Delta near the Colorado River.  Used almost 1000 years ago for the storage of food and seeds, the granaries are among the most iconic archeological sites in the park and serve as a connection between modern day visitors, native peoples who lived in and traveled through the park for thousands of years, and the living tribes that work with the park today to preserve their ancestral heritage.

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Brewer panel want to privatize the operation of Arizona’s State Parks

[Source: Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services, via East Valley Tribute]

A panel appointed by Gov. Jan Brewer to study government made its first recommendations Tuesday to turn more of it over to the private sector.

The initial report by the Commission on Privatization and Efficiency suggested the state pursue more opportunities to turn parks over to private companies or at least let them operate retail concessions. Members also want to push Congress to repeal laws that now prohibit the state from letting private firms set up shop in rest areas along interstate highways.

Mark Brnovich. (Photo Credit: AZ Dept of Gaming)

But state Gaming Director Mark Brnovich, whom Brewer named to head the panel, said this is only the first step. He said the nine-member commission, hand-picked by the governor, is predisposed to believe that if a government service can be privatized, it probably should be.

“Like the governor, members of the commission are strong believers in the free enterprise system and the free market,” Brnovich said in an interview with Capitol Media Services. “History has shown that the private sector is able to come up with innovative and, very often, cost-effective solutions to problems.”
Brnovich acknowledged that private companies, unlike government, have to make a profit. But he said commission members don’t see this as meaning higher costs for taxpayers.

“The free market system, capitalism works because folks are forced to come up with better ideas and create greater efficiencies and come up with new innovations,” Brnovich said. He calls it the “yellow book test.”

“If a function is available, if you can look at it and find it in the ‘yellow book,’ you should ask yourself, ‘should government be doing that?'” Brnovich said. “And if government is doing it, should it be done in conjunction through public-private partnership or can it be done in a better, more efficient way?”

Brnovich said this initial list of options includes those things that either already are underway or can be done relatively simply.

For example, the state contracted last year with the city of Yuma to operate the Yuma Quartermaster Depot State Historic Park. And the Arizona Parks Board has since worked out other deals with local groups to help keep parks open.

The commission, however, wants more, including giving private companies the opportunity to actually run the parks, collect all admission fees and pay the state a percentage. The report suggests this would be profitable for private companies by allowing them to sell food and other items and even operate lodging, as concessionaires do at Grand Canyon National Park, albeit with the federal government still running that one.

Brnovich said that, despite the bent of commission members toward privatizing, that doesn’t necessarily mean state agencies would be put out of business and employees laid off. He said these agencies could submit bids, just the same as private groups.

That concept, called “managed competition,” has been used in some communities to award contracts for trash collection.

He said that concept will be studied before the final report is issued at the end of this year.

But Brnovich said measuring costs and benefits is only part of any analysis of what to privatize.

“Additionally, you have to ask the question, is this something government should be doing and, if so, can it be done in a better way and can it be done in conjunction with the private sector or by the private sector?” he said.

Brnovich said there are certain “core government functions” that, political philosophy aside, probably should not be farmed out. That includes his own agency which oversees tribal gaming.

He acknowledged there are functions within his office that might, under other circumstances, lend themselves to outsourcing, such as audits of the books of tribal casinos. But Brnovich said the secrecy required in the contracts with tribes makes it more logical for all that work to be done “in house,” with employees who are subject to background checks.

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