Senate budget plan would shutter state parks

[Source:  Pete Aleshire, Payson Roundup]

Like a bystander gunned down in a gang shooting, the Arizona State Parks system will have to virtually shut down if the recently adopted state Senate budget takes effect, according to park officials.

The Senate budget would sweep nearly $3 million in funding from the state park’s budgets, on top of $72 million in cuts over the past three years. In addition, the Senate budget would impose spending and contracting restrictions that would prevent the parks from even contracting with other agencies to run the now-endangered collection of 28 sites.

“Because they’ve got burrs under the saddle, they’re using that as an excuse to rip off the saddle and shoot the horse,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.

That budget proposal could force the closure of every park in the system, including Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, Rim Country’s best-known tourist attraction.

“It’ll kill the ability to keep any state parks open,” said Evans, who spent the week in Phoenix lobbying House members to convince them to reject the Senate budget in favor of Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposal.

“Not only would (the Senate version) sweep $3 million in funding, but it imposes spending restrictions. So the parks could raise $10 million in gate fees — but could only spend $7.5 million.”

Other provisions in the bill would strangle the backup plan for keeping Tonto Natural Bridge open by making it almost impossible to turn the park over to a private contractor.

Payson and other local supporters have formed an innovative partnership with the state parks system in the past two years to keep the world’s largest natural travertine arch open, mindful that at its peak Tonto Natural Bridge drew more than 90,000 visitors yearly who pumped an estimated $26 million annually into the region’s struggling, tourist-oriented economy.

The state parks system came up with money to repair the rotted roof and shore up the historic lodge so it could perhaps once again house paying guests. Payson has contributed money to keep the park open and the locally-formed Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge has raised money and provided volunteers to compensate for deep staffing cuts.

Earlier this year, the park system indicated it hopes to find a private contractor to help operate Tonto Natural Bridge, by either taking over the entire operation or running certain potentially money-making elements of the park, like a lodge, gift shop or campground. The partnership with Payson, Star Valley the Tonto Apache Tribe and the local support group have provided a model for efforts to save parks statewide.

Evans said the state Senate’s budget, supported by Rim Country representative Sen. Sylvia Allen (R-Snowflake), goes far beyond balancing the budget to seemingly settle political scores.

“There are multiple agendas here and some (lawmakers) are using the budget to accomplish what they’ve tried to do for years,” he said.

As an example, he cited the provisions in the budget bill that would cripple efforts to bring in private contractors or form partnerships to help operate the parks.

“The Senate bill makes it virtually impossible to do that as well,” Evans concluded.

Assistant State Parks Director Jay Ziemann put out a memo this week detailing the potential impact of the cuts proposed in the Senate budget.

He noted that the parks system has already absorbed some $72 million in cuts in three years, which has left half of the state parks jobs vacant and stripped away most maintenance funds.

The proposed additional cuts include a $2-million reduction in the $10-million enhancement fund, which comes mostly from fees visitors pay when they visit. The language of the bill would make it impossible for the system to raise more money by raising additional fees and negotiating partnerships. Since the state and Payson developed their partnership to keep Tonto Natural Bridge open, the state has developed similar agreements crucial to keeping 16 other parks operating. The Senate budget will likely kill all those partnerships, concluded Ziemann.

Editorial: A call to shield state showcases

[Source: The Arizona Republic]

A business would go belly up if someone diverted a big chunk of its revenue.

So the Senate’s proposed raid on Arizona State Parks is just baffling.

These are the places that showcase the magic of Arizona, from Slide Rock to Kartchner Caverns to Picacho Peak. And they’ve been slammed by budget cutbacks.

In fact, the general fund doesn’t put a single penny into the state park system any more.

So the parks increasingly rely on the income they can generate through fees and retail sales. Next fiscal year, which begins July 1, they expect to raise $10 million.

But the Senate passed a budget that would swipe $2 million of park income. Those dollars come directly from visitors, who assume that their fees are supporting the continued survival of the places they enjoy.

The 20 percent hit would severely undercut the partnerships that helped reopen parks that had to be shuttered last year. Local governments and groups are lending a hand at historic sites like Fort Verde, Tombstone Courthouse and Yuma Prison. They’re keeping the gates open at recreational playgrounds, such as Tonto Natural Bridge, Lost Dutchman and Alamo Lake. These are important attractions in areas that depend heavily on tourism.

It gets worse. The Senate-adopted budget would also siphon off $1.5 million that the parks get from the lake-improvement fund, which comes from watercraft fees and fuel taxes.

Legislators often say that government should operate more like a business. Well, the parks are following a business model.

But the Senate’s model is closer to piracy.

The state-park system has had $72 million in cuts over the past three years. Its entire operating budget, covering everything from law enforcement to toilet paper, is now $19 million.

Gov. Jan Brewer’s budget recognizes that the parks’ survival is on the line. It has no further cuts or diversions.

Unfortunately, the potential damage doesn’t end at the budget.

The Senate would require the State Parks Board, which oversees the system, to issue a request for proposals for the private operation of some or all state parks. It would have to contract out the management of at least two state parks (a profitable one bundled with an unprofitable one) by Feb. 1, 2012.

Expanding private enterprise within the parks is a smart idea. This is just a poorly conceived way to do it.

The Senate bill has no provisions for private operators interested in one or two concessions in a park. It sets out no criteria for responsible operations, no protections for these valuable publicly owned assets and no financial standards. The deadline could force the state to accept a very bad deal.

Last year, the Arizona State Parks Foundation commissioned a study that gave a detailed analysis of the opportunities and limitations of privatization, which could involve either businesses or non-profit groups. The ideas ranged from cafes to lattice-framed yurts.

The study also proposed creating a quasi-governmental agency to oversee the parks.

These are valuable places, even for Arizonans who never set foot in them. In 2007, a study estimated, the economic impact of state parks was $266 million.

A financially stable state-park system, with the resources to expand the recreational opportunities for visitors (imagine a zip line at Slide Rock), would strengthen Arizona’s allure as a tourist destination.

The Legislature should not undermine it with budget cuts and hasty privatization mandates.