No matter state budget outcome, some Arizona State Parks likely to close

[Source: Tammy Gray-Searles, Navajo County Publishers] — The early shutdown of campgrounds at Arizona State Parks is likely a foreshadowing of things to come for several parks across the state, including Lyman Lake and Homolovi state parks.  Regardless of the final outcome of the state budget, which was still not finalized as of press time Wednesday, the Arizona State Parks Board will be forced to make painful budget cuts.  Reducing costs by closing at least eight state parks is still at the top of the list, and was scheduled to be the topic of a July 2 work session.

According to state parks spokesman Ellen Bilbrey, board members were not expected to take action at the work session, but instead were to determine exactly how to proceed when they hold their next regular meeting on Monday, Aug. 3.

The July 2 agenda called for the board to meet in executive session “for legal advice regarding strategies necessary to balance the budget including, but not limited to, spending reductions, staff layoffs or reductions in force, transferring expenses to alternative funding sources, suspending grant payments, suspending FY2010 grant cycle, park closures, reduction of hours/days of operations, deferring parks capital projects, furloughs, salary reductions, spending reductions…”  Public discussion was scheduled following the executive session.

Parks on the potential chopping block besides Lyman Lake and Homolovi include Riordan Mansion, Fort Verde State Historic Park, Yuma Quartermaster Depot, Oracle State Park, Tubac Presidio, and McFarland State Historic Park. [Note: Read the full article at No matter state budget outcome, some Arizona State Parks likely to close]

House kills measure that would re-open Arizona state parks on full-time basis

Arizona State House of Representatives (Phoenix, Arizona) by courthouselover.
Arizona House of Representatives (Photo source: courthouselover, Flickr)

[Source: Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services] — The state House lawmakers killed legislation Tuesday that would have provided money to reopen state parks on a full-time basis. A total of 36 legislators voted for the measure that would have taken $20 million from a special account designed to deal with urban sprawl and given some of that to the state Parks Board to compensate for cuts in the agency’s budget made by lawmakers in January.   But HB 2088 needed 45 votes because the fund was created by voters in 1998.  And the Arizona Constitution requires a three-fourths margin of the 60-member House — and the 30-member Senate — to alter what voters have approved.

Deputy Parks Director Jay Zieman said Tuesday’s action means five parks will remain closed two days a week to save money. It also delays the reopening of three other parks that were shuttered entirely, at least in part to cut costs.   The defeat came when every House Democrat except one refused to support the measure.

Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, said he was sympathetic to the needs of the Parks Department.  But he questioned the legality of the move.  He pointed out that the constitution forbids lawmakers from tinkering with any program approved by voters. He said the only exception, even with a three-fourths margin, is when a change “furthers the purpose’ of the underlying measure.  In this case, he said voters approved providing $20 million a year for 11 years to help purchase or lease state trust lands in urban areas to keep them out of the hands of developers.  Funding the operation of parks, said Campbell, does not do that.  He also said raiding voter-approved funds sets a “bad precedent.”

None of that placated Zieman.  “We expect to have $98 million in that fund at the end of the fiscal year,’ he said.  “It is maddening to be in a position where you’re closing parks’ because 30 percent of the staff has been let go.

The state has closed Tonto, McFarland and Jerome state parks, though some of the reason they were chosen because of work that needs to be done at each site.  What was not anticipated was the need to go to a five-day-a-week schedule at six other parks: Fort Verde, Oracle, Tombstone Courthouse, Tubac Presidio, Yuma Territorial Prison, and the Yuma Quartermaster Depot.  The state is saving money by chaining them closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  Aside from the closures and reduced schedules, Zieman said his agency also has suspended funding grants, even in cases where groups had been given the go-ahead and work had been started.

Rep. Warde Nichols, R-Gilbert, who crafted the legislation, said the move made sense not to tap the funds which “are doing absolutely nothing for our state right now.”  One reason there is so much money in the account because the 1998 law requires that taxpayer funds be matched by other sources, whether public or private.  Those matching funds have not materialized. Beyond that, Nichols said the economy has slowed development to the point where builders are not buying up large swaths of state land.  And Nichols said the funding is just a loan: The legislation would have required the state to put back the $20 million in the future.

But Rep. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said that payback is not guaranteed, as future lawmakers could simply vote to ignore the mandate. [Note: To read the full article, click here.  To read the Camp Verde Bugle’s editorial on this subject, click here.]

Major repair work underway at McFarland State Historic Park

[Source: Casa Grande Valley Newspapers] — A four-month contract to make extensive repairs and renovations to McFarland State Historic Park in Florence began last week.  The porch, which had been weakened by dry rot, was torn out but will definitely be replaced.  The rooms on the south side of the building, added for office space in the 1950s, will be removed so the porch may once again encircle the building.  “We want to make it look more like it did” as the original Pinal County Courthouse, Park Manager Christopher DeMille said.

A French drain, as well as a wall under the porch, will help ensure that water doesn’t contact the adobe wall anymore.  This and a new underground drainage system will drain water to the ditch between McFarland Park and the town of Florence’s Heritage Park.  The project includes repairs to the major cracks in the adobe walls.  Repairs to the walls made with red brick and cement in years past will be removed and replaced with adobe blocks.

The park at Main and Ruggles streets was closed in early February.  Amid the state’s continuing budget crisis, no reopening date has been announced. [Note: To read the full article, click here.]

Viewpoint: Arizona state legislature’s grab of open-space funds violates constitution

[Source: Editorial Board, Tucson Citizen] –Taking millions from a voter-approved land conservation fund does not ‘further the purpose’ of the fund.  The Arizona Legislature won’t let a trifling thing like the state constitution stand in the way of its efforts to patch budget holes. The Arizona House has given preliminary approval to steal-from-Peter-to-pay-Paul legislation that would take money from a constitutionally protected open-space fund to help keep state parks open.  It is a shrewd move that has divided environmentalists who have been critical of the Legislature’s attacks on state parks.  But it clearly runs counter to the constitution — a far bigger obstacle.

To help balance the hemorrhaging budget, the Legislature slashed spending by the state Parks Department. That forced three closures — McFarland and Jerome historic parks and Tonto Natural Bridge — and threatened closure of eight others.  After protests, legislators came up with a “solution” in HB 2088: Take $20 million from a fund for land conservation and give about half to the Arizona State Parks Board.  The other half would be distributed to the Land, Commerce, and Water Resources departments.  That molified parks supporters, but there is a bigger problem: The land conservation fund was established by voters.

The state constitution says legislators can alter voter-approved measures only with a three-quarters vote of both houses and only if the action “furthers the purpose” of the initiative.  The three-quarters threshold is iffy. But there is no way that taking money from the fund “furthers the purpose” of land conservation.  The fund was established in 1998 as part of voter-approved conservation measures and provides grants for land purchases by local governments.  Legislators say they will only “borrow” the money and repay it when they are able.  That’s not good enough.  The fund was set up to buy and preserve land, not as a revolving loan fund for legislators’ use.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, called the move “a very, very cynical move by some in the majority to try to pit conservation interests against each other to weaken, undercut and get around the voter-protection act and not take responsibility for the terrible budget they passed.”  We agree.

In 1998 — the same year voters established the conservation fund — they also approved the Voter Protection Act, which protects citizen initiatives.  Voters acted after the Legislature frequently undercut, repealed and diverted dollars from voter-approved measures.  This move shows why such a measure was so needed.  We urge legislators to reject HB 2088.  It is wrong, unfair, and unconstitutional.  [Note: To read the viewer comments, click here.]