Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

August 18, 2009


Host: Ted Simons

State Parks


  • Renee Bahl, Director of Arizona State Parks, explains how budget cuts have affected her agency's ability to properly care for Arizona's parks system.
Guests:
  • Renee Bahl - Director of Arizona State Parks
Category: Environment   |   Keywords: state parks. arizona state parks,

View Transcript
Ted Simons:
Much has been made of state budget cuts and their impact on education and social services, but many other government functions are also feeling the pinch. The operating budget for Arizona state parks has been slashed from $26 million to about $19 million. The agency was expecting about $8 million from the state general fund, but that's not going to happen. Instead, the agency is relying on visitor fees and various other sources of funding. Meanwhile, parks have been closed. Historic buildings have fallen into disrepair. And the agency is looking for creative ways to do its job. Here to tell us about the challenges facing Arizona state parks is its executive director, Renee Bahl. Thank you so much for joining us.

Renee Bahl:
Glad to be here.

Ted Simons:
The state of the parks system doesn't sound that hot.

Renee Bahl:
No, it's pretty dire right now. As you mentioned, our budget was $26 million. It actually should be $30 million. Last February, we were reduced to a $21 million operating budget, parks closed, we suspended grants. We stopped awarded grants to local communities and reduced hours at a number of parks. With the new fiscal year, our budget is $19 million and our entire general fund has been eliminated.

Ted Simons:
The entire fund?

Renee Bahl:
The entire fund, which had been 13 months ago $8.35 million is now zero.

Ted Simons:
Three parks closed and including McFarland Park in Florence.

Renee Bahl:
And Jerome Park and Tonto National Bridge closed in February. We work with the community and helped us reopen it on weekends. Both are under repair right now.

Ted Simons:
And we should mention that parks system also include buildings like we're seeing here in Florence. Historic buildings that need help. Need renovation and repair.

Renee Bahl:
They do, and they've fallen to the wayside in the last few years. We have probably $150 million in deferred maintenance and capital improvement needs throughout our park system.

Ted Simons:
The other needs include?

Renee Bahl:
The historic parks like you were talking about. We have water lines we need to replace. We have paving that needs to be repaired throughout our parks system. It's everything you can imagine. They're like little cities. Wastewater treatment plants.

Ted Simons:
And these affect the surrounding cities. You mentioned up around Tonto Bridge. That's hurt the area quite a bit.

Renee Bahl:
State parks are a huge economic engine throughout the state. The people provide $250 billion of local taxes annually, directly and indirectly. So when a park closes, it's not just closing for use of recreation or for conservation purpose, but it's hurting that community. People aren't visiting and spending their tax dollars there.

Ted Simons:
The general fund, how much does that contribute to the overall parks budget?

Renee Bahl:
Well, we used to have about $8.5 million; it was about a third of our operating budget. And today it's zero. So zero percent.

Ted Simons:
Interesting. But before, ideally, you'd get 30 some odd percent.

Renee Bahl:
About that. 30% from the park user fees. When you come and spend your $5 to enter the park. Or $20 to camp. And a third from conservation taxes that the voters have said they need. Like the heritage fund or growing smarter funds and lake improvement funds.

Ted Simons:
And talk about the heritage fund, what it is and money was -- was it swept out of the fund?

Renee Bahl:
The heritage fund is a $10 million fund when fully funded. $20 million total and comes from lottery proceeds. This fiscal year, $3 million is transferred for fire suppression out of the heritage fund and half a million to the natural resource conservation districts. So our $10 million is slowly dwindling down and we're using what we can to operate and there's not much left.

Ted Simons:
And the heritage fund and some other budget sweeps occurred as well.

Renee Bahl:
We lost $3 million of our enhancement fund, which is about $8 million. So that's a large percent and $3 million out of our lake improvement fund which is a little under $5 million. So over 60% of it was swept.

Ted Simons:
You mentioned grants also not happening as well. Why is that?

Renee Bahl:
For a couple reasons I mentioned due to the sweeps and we award to local communities to build out their parks because we're a state park system but the money is just not there.

Ted Simons:
Is there a way for the park system to be self-sufficient? I ask that with the idea, are there privatization models? Sales and leasebacks? Is there something you guys can do to get out from under the general fund merry-go-round?

Renee Bahl:
We were never designed to be a self-sufficient department. Most state parks are not. And the little bit of general fund money that was put in; we're a huge economic engine. But there is a taskforce right now looking at self-sufficiency models to fund Arizona state parks systems. And they're looking at a variety of mechanisms to get us out of the legislative appropriations year after year so we can operate. Is there an opportunity for privatization? I think there's always an opportunity for appropriate uses at parks to provide additional recreational amenities. But these are for the public and they should be operated by the state.

Ted Simons:
State parks for the public. Could you also include kind of a co-opt management system where not just the state but everyone is involved in making this thing work?

Renee Bahl:
Absolutely. We welcome partners. We have partners in Yuma helping. And private concessions at some parks to offer different amenities. As long as it's open to the public and its appropriate access, that's what is important.

Ted Simons:
Give us a timeline for when we can look for our other state parks to perhaps not be open anymore.

Renee Bahl:
Yes, the state parks board will have difficult decisions to make at their 11th of September board meeting. We'll be proposing to them how to meet these additional budget cuts. $2 million cuts on top of what's already been closed. They're going to look at everything from visitation to revenue, to economic viability of all of these parks and they're going to have to make cuts in our programs and parks.

Ted Simons:
And right now, you guys are operating on a day-to-day cash flow basis?

Renee Bahl:
We are. We used to have it set aside and now we wait for the revenue to come in and basically spend it the next month.

Ted Simons:
Is this getting the attention of the legislature or just getting lost in the roar?

Renee Bahl:
Probably getting lost in the roar and we need to remember you don't have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment and you can have both.

Ted Simons:
All right. Renee thanks for joining us.

Renee Bahl:
I appreciate it too.


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