1/4/2010 6:19:00 AM Board, staff left with no choice
but to close several Arizona state parks
Reese Woodling, chairman of the state Parks Board, puts his head in his hands Thursday after being told by staff there is no alternative but to close some parks because of budget cuts imposed by the Legislature. "I'm just sick to my stomach," he said. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)
PHOENIX -- The decision by lawmakers last month to take funds from the parks system means some will be shuttered later this year, the director of the agency said Thursday.
The only question that remains, said Renee Bahl, is which ones.
Bahl said the system, which already gets no direct taxpayer dollars, is being crippled because of the legislative action to take away a chunk of the funds they get from other sources. That includes not only the fees paid by those who go to the parks but also special funds raised like assessments on registration of boats and off-road vehicles.
The bottom line, she said, is that her agency will have just $7.5 million to spend rather than the $19 million it had planned for the fiscal year that began last July 1.
Bahl said she will make specific recommendations to the board on which parks to close in two weeks. But she outlined the criteria her staff will use -- criteria that are likely to be bad news for the smallest and least used of the parks.
One of the most important, she said, is which make money or, at the very least, don't lose a lot. Bahl said that makes the most sense, as the cash from those parks might eventually be enough to reopen one or more of those shut down.
Topping the list of money producers is Kartchner Caverns, followed by Rock and Lake Havasu state parks. Catalina State Park brings in about $193,000 more a year than it costs to operate.
But the parks system also is populated with sites that bleed red ink.
Topping that list is Tonto Natural Bridge near payson, where costs exceed revenues by $541,000. Red Rock State Park at Sedona operates on a $190,000-a-year loss, with six-digit deficits at Tubac Presidio, Picacho Peak, Homolovi Ruins and the Riordan Mansion in Flagstaff.
Bahl said, though, the board will have to consider other factors when deciding which parks should be shut down.
"There's one-time costs like fencing or if we needed to add a security system to a building or board something up,' she said. "And we're still going to need to keep an eye on it after that, checking it both for fire hazards and seeing if there's any trespassing.'
Several board members, given the news, lashed out at lawmakers for taking the funds, even after being told at hearings last month that it will mean shutting parks.
"We have people in the Legislature who don't believe state parks should exist,' complained Tracey Westerhausen. She said the best thing that those who want the parks system could do is go out this year and elect different people.
Board Chairman Reese Woodling said the parks bring in more in tax dollars from visitors to communities than the cost. He said that message seems lost on lawmakers.
But board member Arlan Colton said it's not that they don't understand. He said that, facing a multi-billion dollar deficit, "I don't really think they give a horse's patootie' about the effect of taking a couple of million dollars from the parks system.
Woodling said he and Bahl spoke with Brewer earlier this week. He said the governor, who signed the legislation authorizing taking the cash, was sympathetic but offered no answers.
"I'm just sick to my stomach,' he said.
Gubernatorial press aide Paul Senseman said Brewer had no choice but to approve raiding the funds. "The Legislature has been unable to muster enough support for a deficit reduction plan,' he said.
But Senseman said Brewer is unwilling, at least at this point, to endorse the recommendation of a task force she formed to create a "sustainable' park system: Put an optional $15 surcharge on the registration fees for all vehicles in this state. The fees would raise enough to keep the system operating, with motorists who paid the extra cash getting free admission all year to every state park.
"The governor believes it ought to be discussed in a very serious fashion,' Senseman said of the recommendation.
Under questioning from one board member, Bahl admitted that the idea of keeping open the parks that make money and banking that cash to reopen other ones comes with a risk: State lawmakers, who still have to make up another $1.5 billion to balance this year's budget, might eye those funds and take them, too.
Bahl also warned that the deal the state has for some of the parks requires that they remain open.
For example, the Tombstone Courthouse and parking lot reverse to previous owners if it is permanently closed. Land Picacho Peak and Lost Dutchman reverts to the federal Bureau of Land Management if they are no longer operated as parks, with the Defenders of Wildlife entitled to reclaim Oracle State Park if shuttered.
Yuma Prison would have to be given back to the federal government.