Budget fix leaves state parks in dire situation - The Explorer: Pima Pinal

Budget fix leaves state parks in dire situation

Legislative sweeps raid accounts voters approved in 1990 to fund parks

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Posted: Tuesday, March 30, 2010 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:19 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

The recently concluded special session of the Arizona State Legislature may have put to rest the long-outstanding budget.

But some observers say the enacted fixes create problems potentially worse than those they were designed to fix by eliminating state support for an important economic engine: the Arizona State Parks system.

"It's very, very short-sighted," said William Thornton, a Tucson retiree and volunteer with the Arizona Heritage Alliance, a group that advocates for the Arizona State Parks system.

Group members say the parks system generates much more revenue for the state than it costs. They cite studies showing that more than 2.3 million people visit the parks annually and pump more than $266 million into the state economy while generating nearly $44 million in federal, state and local taxes.

A key provision of the budget fix liquidates accounts intended to pay for park operations. Since 2007, the parks system has had large portions of its budget cut or diverted to the general fund.

The recent budget bill also mandates that money from the voter-approved Heritage Fund be transferred to the state's general fund, where it would go toward filling the multi-billion dollar gap in the state's budget.

"Right now the state is absolutely flat broke," said Rep. Vic Williams, a Republican from District 26, encompassing much of the Northwest.

Williams regrets the park closures, but said the dire budget situation the state finds itself in demanded dramatic cuts in nearly all budget areas.

He said a fix to the state parks situation would take a back seat until issues regarding school and public safety funding could be rectified.

Money from the Heritage Fund, which voters approved in 1990, comes from lottery ticket sales, $10 million of which are earmarked annually for the parks system. Most of that $10 million from the Heritage Fund supports projects well outside the scope of state parks, such as local neighborhood parks and aid to non-profit groups.

Since its inception, the fund has provided tens of millions of dollars in funding to local agencies, including more than $7.2 million in support to projects in the Tucson area.

"All of that's stopped," said Renee Bahl, executive director of the state parks system.

In addition to the elimination of Heritage funds, the legislature has shut down all general fund support for the parks system in the current and next budget years. The general fund pays for much of the operating costs of state government.

Financial data provided by parks officials show the drawbacks in general fund dollars coming into the department's coffers had already been cut in 2003.

At the time, parks had been the recipients of more than $7.3 million annually from the general fund. The cuts took all but $37,000 from the system.

Funding resumed to near-2002 levels in subsequent years, but by the current fiscal year funding has been completely eliminated.

Parks officials estimate that the system's complete budget for fiscal 2010-'11 would total $11.5 million. More than $7.5 million of that comes from park-related revenue like gate and camping fees and a small amount from concessions. That, in effect, leaves the department operating at little cost to taxpayers.

Continued budget cuts and funding sweeps have forced the layoff of hundreds of employees, the closure of numerous state parks and limitations of the operating hours of others.

"A month-and-a-half ago, we were at 217 employees, and we're diminishing," Bahl said. In recent years, the parks system supported an employee base of nearly 400 people.

In lieu of the state government funding its parks system, local governments, foundations and even individuals have offered to support some of the parks.

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors agreed last week to assume operations of Tubac Presidio State Historic Park, the site of one of a few exisiting18th century Spanish settlements in Arizona.

Money to help the county operate the park is expected to come from support groups and through the assistance of the local business community that has donated thousands of dollars to keep the park open.

Although one of the lesser-visited sites among the state's assets, Tubac still saw about 13,000 visitors in fiscal 2008, according to parks department figures.

Analysis done by the Northern Arizona University W. A. Franke College of Business shows that the Tubac Presidio has a strong impact on the local economy. The study estimates that visitors to the park in 2007 pumped some $204,000 into the local economy. The study also estimates that tax proceeds from park visitors topped $30,000.

"When you consider the visitors it draws to the county, it's a very positive economic factor to the community," Thornton said.

The town of Payson has agreed to contribute $25,000 to keep Tonto Natural Bridge open to Sept. 27. Nearly 88,000 people visited the Gila County attraction in 2007 and spent more than $3 million in the local economy, generating more than $414,000 in taxes.

Another state park received $8,000 from a regular visitor to keep the facility operational. A Texas tourist gave the money to Lost Dutchman State Park, located in Pinal County. The private contribution is enough to keep the park open for about a month.

Lost Dutchman had about 100,000 visitors in 2007 who spent as much as $3.3 million in the local economy, according to the NAU study. Park visitors paid nearly $600,000 in federal, state and local taxes, the same study says.

Other local governments have begun talks with the parks board to operate nearby sites.

The town of Camp Verde has plied to keep Fort Verde State Historic Park open, Yuma has proposed to operate Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park for three years. The city of Tombstone offered to keep the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park afloat for three years as well. An agreement with the Arizona Historical Society would keep open for three years the Riordan Mansion State Historic Park in Flagstaff.

Other state parks haven't fared as well.

Jerome State Historic Park, McFarland State Historic Park, Oracle State Park, Homolovi Ruins State Park and Lyman Lake State Park all have closed in recent months.

Alamo Lake State Parks, Picacho Peak State Park, San Rafael State Natural Area and Lost Dutchman State Park would likely close by June 3. The agency is in discussions with some local governments to keep the parks open, Bahl said.

Williams said he hopes a proposed bill that provides funding solutions for state parks would get a hearing. The bill would fund state parks through an additional fee on state vehicle licensing. As written, the proposal would be put before the voters for approval in November.

Appropriations Committee Chairman John Kavanagh, a Republican from Fountain Hills in Maricopa County, has not allowed the bill to move forward. The seeming intransigence and lack of any plan for the parks system's future has Williams concerned.

"I'm personally frustrated that there is no comprehensive plan to address the state park system," Williams said. "People would be more receptive if we stepped up and gave some kind of direction."

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