Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

January 25, 2010


Host: Ted Simons

Arizona State Parks


  • State parks are in a life or death battle for their existence as state lawmakers look for ways to cut the budget. Renee Bahl, Executive Director of Arizona State Parks, will talk about the dire situation.
Guests:
  • Renee Bahl - Executive Director, Arizona State Parks
Category: Culture

View Transcript
Ted Simons: The Arizona State parks board voted recently to close 13 of 27 state parks. The closures were needed after lawmakers swept $8.6 million from the state parks budget. In a moment, I'll talk to the director of the state parks, but first, here are some public comments made at the parks board meeting before the decision to close the parks was made.

Karen Washabau: Riordan MANSION STATE PARK HAS IMMEASURABLE VALUE TO ARIZONA. THE CITY OF FLAGSTAFF, WHO WE MET WITH, OTHER CULTURAL ORGANIZATIONS UP THERE AND PRIVATE DONORS WANT TO KEEP RIORDAN PARK OPEN.

Charles Adams: I'M GENERALLY AN ARCHEOLOGIST, NOT JUST MULLVIEW, WHERE I'VE DONE MY RESEARCH. THERE ARE A TREMENDOUS AMOUNT OF ARCHEOLOGICAL SITES ON STATE PARKS. THERE'S A GREAT CONCERN IN THE ARCHEOLOGICAL COMMUNITY ABOUT PROTECTION OF THESE IF SOME OF THESE PARKS CLOSE. THEY'RE EXTREMELY VULNERABLE.

Joni Bosh: AS A FORMER BOARD MEMBER, I'VE BEEN WATCHING THIS ISSUE AND HAVE BEEN APPALLED AT WHAT I SEE THE LEGISLATURE DOING. I'M TOTALLY SYMPATHETIC TO THE HARD FIGHT Y'ALL ARE IN. THIS IS NOT AN EASY ISSUE. I'M SO WORRIED THAT IF YOU DO START CLOSING PARKS, I'M THRILLED TO SEE THE TURNOUT TODAY, BUT AS YOU HEARD FROM EVERYONE HERE, CLOSING THESE PARKS IS SOMETIMES A ONE-WAY ROAD. I THINK IF YOU CLOSE SOME, YOU RISK VANDALISM, YOU RISK LOSS OF PARKS WHERE EASEMENTS ARE GOING TO BE VIOLATED, YOU'RE LOOKING AT LOSS OF INCOME TO THE NEARBY TOWNS THAT WE'VE BEEN SUCH AN ATTRIBUTE TO AND YOU'VE LOST INCOME INTO THE STATE. I DON'T THINK THERE'S A GOOD ANSWER HERE BUT I THINK ONE OF THE ANSWERS MIGHT BE TO TAKE ADVANTAGE BY ALL OF THESE OFFERS MADE BY VOLUNTEERS TODAY TO KEEP THE SYSTEMS OPEN.

Carol Cullen: WE WOULD ALSO LIKE TO ASK THAT YOU CREATE A MECHANISM SO THAT A NONPROFIT OR THE NONPROFITS IN OUR COMMUNITIES CAN ASSUME RESPONSIBILITY FOR OUR PARK, RATHER THAN PRIVATIZING IT. LET US DO IT. LET US SUBMIT THE BUSINESS PLAN TO KEEP IT GOING UNTIL YOU CAN REOPEN IT.

William Muir: IF I WERE THE MANAGER OF THIS OPERATION, IF I WERE THE CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER AND I SAW THIS GOING ON, I WOULD MAKE ARRANGEMENTS TO SELL YOU. I WOULD LAY OFF THE MANAGEMENT. I WOULD THINK OF WAYS TO GET RID OF CAPITAL EQUIPMENT AND I WOULD SELL THE PARK SYSTEMS TO PRIVATE INDUSTRY WITH THE COVENANT THAT YOU COULD BUY IT BACK AT A LATER DATE. CLOSE IT ALL, GIVE ALL THE MONEY BACK TO THE STATE, BE HEROES, HELP THEM WITH THEIR STATE BUDGET PROBLEMS.

Ted Simons: Joining me now is the director of state parks, Renee Bahl. RENEE, GOOD TO SEE YOU AGAIN.

Renee Bahl: THANKS FOR HAVING ME.

Ted Simons: TWO-THIRDS OF STATE PARKS COULD BE CLOSED BY EARLY JUNE.

Renee Bahl: YES. THE PARKS BOARD TOOK ACTION EARLIER THIS MONTH TO CLOSE 13 STATE PARKS. THAT LEAVES NINE OPEN AS WE ALREADY HAD A FEW CLOSED. WE'RE IN A VERY DIRE FINANCIAL SITUATION RIGHT NOW. CANNOT AFFORD TO KEEP THEM ALL OPEN.

Ted Simons: THE DECISION TO CLOSE X BUT KEEP Y OPEN, WHAT WERE THE CRITERIA THERE?

Renee Bahl: SIMPLY DOLLARS AND CENTS. WE LOOKED AT THE PARKS WITH THE HIGHEST REVENUE OR NET REVENUE TO OPERATE OR A VERY LOW NET COST AND THOSE WERE THE PARKS THAT WERE RECOMMENDED TO STAY OPEN. WE DIDN'T LOOK AT ANY OTHER VALUE OF THE SYSTEM.

Ted Simons: SO BASICALLY THE COSTS AND THAT'S THE BOTTOM LINE. DO THOSE PARKS MAKE ENOUGH MONEY TO WHERE IN THE FUTURE MAYBE SOME OF THE CLOSED PARKS COULD COME BACK ON-LINE?

Renee Bahl: THAT'S CERTAINLY OUR HOPE. IF THEY MAKE A LITTLE MORE MONEY THAN THEY SHOULD COST TO OPERATE. SO IN THE LONG RUN, MAYBE MONTHS OUT OR A YEAR OUT, WE WOULD HOPE TO BRING ANOTHER PARK OR TWO INTO THE SYSTEM, ONE WE MOTHBALLED ESSENTIALLY. WE'RE MOTHBALLING ALL THE PARKS.

Ted Simons: WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A PARK IS MOTHBALLED? WHEN YOU HEAR CLOSING A STATE PARK, WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

Renee Bahl: WELL, THERE'S NO MODEL TO FOLLOW. THIS IS THE FIRST SYSTEM LOOKING AT THIS GREAT CLOSURE. OUR NUMBER ONE PRIORITY WOULD BE TO PROTECT THE RESOURCE. WE'LL DO WHAT WE CAN AT FACILITIES TO CLOSE THEM OFF. EACH ONE WILL HAVE A DIFFERENT SET OF CIRCUMSTANCES. DO WE ADD A SECURITY SYSTEM? WHAT DO WE DO WITH WELLS? WHAT DO WE DO WITH THE WASTEWATER TREATMENT PLANT? AND THEN TRY TO SECURE THE SITE. WE'RE REALLY GOING TO RELY ON VOLUNTEERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON IT.

Ted Simons: WELL, IT SOUNDS LIKE THAT'S A LOT OF WORK, WHICH WOULD COST A LOT OF MONEY JUST TO CLOSE THE PARKS.

Renee Bahl: IT'S A FALLACY TO THINK THAT THERE'S NO COST ASSOCIATED WITH CLOSING A PARK. WE'LL HAVE ONE-TIME COSTS TO CLOSE IT AND THEN ONGOING OPERATING COSTS TO KEEP A PARK CLOSED, SAFE AND SECURE.

Ted Simons: WE TALKED ABOUT SWEPT FUNDS. WHERE DID THESE FUNDS COME FROM THAT WERE SWEPT BY THE LEGISLATURE?

Renee Bahl: THE THREE MAIN FUNDS THAT WERE SWEPT, ONE IS CALLED THE ENHANCEMENT FUND. IT'S OUR GATE FEES WHEN YOU DRIVE INTO A PARK OR CAMP OR TAKE A TOUR. WE TYPICALLY GENERATE ABOUT $8 MILLION A YEAR AND OVER $2 MILLION WAS SWEPT. THAT'S THE FUNDS WE USE TO OPERATE THE PARKS. THEN WE HAVE CONSERVATION TAXES, LIKE THE STATE LAKE IMPROVEMENT FUND AND THE HERITAGE FUND AND THEY HAD ANOTHER 2 AND $4 MILLION SWEEP RESPECTIVELY.

Ted Simons: WHEN PEOPLE THINK THIS IS MONEY THAT THE GENERAL FUND GIVES TO PARKS AND IS NOW TAKING BACK, THAT'S NOT THINKING RIGHT, IS IT?

Renee Bahl: IT'S NOT. WE DON'T RECEIVE ANY GENERAL FUND. WE WERE CHALLENGED THIS LAST FISCAL YEAR IN THE SUMMER TO OPERATE MORE LIKE A BUSINESS. SO WE CUT BACK ON OPERATIONS, WE CLOSED CERTAIN PARKS TWO DAYS A WEEK, WE ELIMINATED MANY WORTHY STATEWIDE PROGRAMS AND WE RAISED OUR FEES TO OPERATE MORE LIKE A BUSINESS. THAT INCLUDED ELIMINATING STAFF. WE MOVED ALONG AND HERE IN DECEMBER, THAT MONEY THAT WE HAD GENERATED IN OUR BUSINESS WAS TAKEN. THEY TOOK THE 'TIL.

Ted Simons: WHEN YOU SAY OPERATE MORE LIKE A BUSINESS, SOME WILL SAY, LET'S GO AHEAD AND PRIVATIZE. MANY FOLKS ARE THINKING ABOUT THAT PRIVATIZE THE PARK. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? IS THAT A VIABLE OPTION, DO YOU THINK?

Renee Bahl: I DON'T THINK IT'S A VIABLE OPTION TO PRIVATIZE TO WHOLE SYSTEM. PRIVATE CONCESSIONAIRES WOULD OFTEN LOOK AT THE BOTTOM LINE. THEY LOOK AT THE PROFIT THAT THEY MAKE. OVERALL OUR SYSTEM WASN'T DESIGNED NOR DOES IT MAKE A PROFIT. THE WHOLE STATE PARK SYSTEM WHEN IT'S OPEN. ABSOLUTELY, THERE IS ROOM FOR PRIVATE CONCESSIONAIRES AT OUR PARKS. WE HAVE THEM NOW. THEY'RE VERY SUCCESSFUL. TO OFFER AMENITIES THAT THE PUBLIC COULDN'T GET OTHERWISE. BUT OVERALL, A PARK SYSTEM, A STATE PARK SYSTEM ISN'T DESIGNED TO MAKE MONEY AND A PRIVATE CONCESSIONAIRE WOULDN'T LIKELY TAKE OVER A STATE PARK SYSTEM.

Ted Simons: SO CONCESSIONS POSSIBLY, BUT THE ACTUAL OPERATION DOESN'T MAKE SENSE TO YOU.

Renee Bahl: IT DOESN'T, NOT ON A STATEWIDE BASIS.

Ted Simons: IF THAT'S THE ONLY WAY LAWMAKERS CAN FIND TO KEEP THESE PARKS OPEN, IS
THAT THE ONLY WAY TO KEEP THEM OPEN?

Renee Bahl: WELL, WE'RE HAVING VERY POSITIVE CONVERSATIONS WITH SOME COMMUNITIES, LOCAL COMMUNITIES TO HELP US OPERATE THE PARKS OR OPERATE IT IN THE SHORT-TERM HOPEFULLY UNTIL THE END OF THE RECESSION. YAVAPAI COUNTY HAS BEEN A GREAT PARTNER. WE'VE HAD CONVERSATIONS WITH YUMA. CAMP VERDE PUT MONEY ON THE TABLE AND SAID IT'S NOT AN OPTION FOR PORT VERDE TO BE CLOSED. WE'VE HAD MANY POSITIVE CONVERSATIONS LIKE THAT AS WELL.

Ted Simons: WE'RE LOOKING AT THE TERRITORIAL PLACES RIGHT THERE WHICH IS ONE OF THE PLACES THAT WILL CLOSE. IT SOUNDS AS IF -- TALK ABOUT THE IMPACT TO YUMA, TO ALL OF THESE SMALLER TOWNS, TO PAYSON, STRAWBERRY. TALK ABOUT THE IMPACT THAT THESE PARKS HAVE ON THOSE COMMUNITIES.

Renee Bahl: IF YOU LOOK AT IT STATEWIDE, OPEN PARKS BRING IN $266 MILLION OF ECONOMIC IMPACT ANNUALLY. THOSE COMMUNITIES RELY ON VISITORS THAT COME TO THE PARKS, THEY GO TO THE RESTAURANTS, THEY GO TO THE GROCERY STORE, THEY SPEND MONEY IN THE COMMUNITY WHEN THEY COME TO THE PARK. WITHOUT THAT INFLUX OF VISITORS COMING IN, MONEY IS NOT GOING TO BE SPENT. AT YUMA PRISON, FOR INSTANCE, WE HAVE ABOUT 60,000 VISITORS ANNUALLY. WHEN YOU THINK ABOUT IT, THAT'S OFTEN THE FIRST PLACE PEOPLE STOP WHEN THEY CROSS THE BORDER. YUMA NEEDS THAT AND THEY KNOW THAT THEY NEED THAT.

Ted Simons: ARE YOU WORKING WITH LIKE RED ROCK STATE PARK? ARE YOU WORKING WITH SEDONA RIGHT NOW TO SEE IF THEY CAN TAKE ON MORE, IF NOT ALL, OF THIS BEAUTIFUL, BEAUTIFUL PARK?

Renee Bahl: SEDONA IS A WONDERFUL PARK. WE'RE TALKING ABOUT SEDONA. WE'VE TALKED WITH YAVAPAI COUNTY. WE'RE TALKING WITH THE BENEFACTORS THERE. ONE OF THE PROBLEMS IS NOBODY HAS MONEY NOW. WE'RE NOT NAIVE TO THAT. IT'S NOT LIKE THESE CITIES AND TOWNS ARE FLUSH WITH MONEY. WE'RE DOING EVERYTHING WE CAN TO TRY TO KEEP SOME SEMBLANCE OF THIS SYSTEM.

Ted Simons: IS THERE ANY TALK OF A LICENSE PLATE SURCHARGE? WE HEARD THAT A WHILE BACK. ANY TRACTION THERE?

Renee Bahl: THERE IS. THERE ARE A COUPLE OF BILLS THAT WILL BE INTRODUCED THAT ONE HAS A MANDATORY FEE ON LICENSE PLATES AND ANOTHER ONE WOULD BE REFERRED TO THE VOTERS. SO WE'RE HOPING THAT THAT CONTINUES THE TRACTION AND WE FIND A SUSTAINABLE LONG-TERM FUNDING SOURCE.

Ted Simons: WHAT ABOUT QUALITY OF LIFE SALES TAXES OR TAXES LEVIED AGAINST TOURISM
AND THESE SORTS OF THINGS?

Renee Bahl: I HAVEN'T HEARD ANYTHING ABOUT THAT. I KNOW THERE'S OTHER TALK OF SALES TAX. REALLY WE'VE BEEN FOCUSED MORE ON THE LICENSE PLATE.

Ted Simons: THE KEY, LAST TIME WE HAD YOU ON AND WE TALKED ABOUT THIS, THE KEY SEEMS TO BE FINDING A DEDICATED FUNDING SOURCE FOR THE PARKS. IS IT OUT THERE? CAN YOU FIND IT?

Renee Bahl: NOT WITH THE REVENUE STREAMS THAT ARE OUT THERE NOW. IT WOULD NEED TO BE SOMETHING NEW AND IT WOULD NEED TO BE DEDICATED AND SOMETHING SECURED. TODAY I WOULD ARGUE THE ONLY SECURED FUNDING SOURCE IS THE ONE THAT IS VOTER PROTECTED.

Ted Simons: AND THE IDEA OF VOTER PROTECTION, WHICH WE'LL TALK ABOUT THAT TOMORROW ON "HORIZON" IS UP FOR DEBATE NOW. JUST IN GENERAL, WHAT ARE PEOPLE LOSING WITH THESE PARKS CLOSING? TALK ABOUT A COUPLE ALREADY. I KNOW SLIDE ROCK AND HAVASU AND CATCHER IN ARE STAYING OPEN. THOSE ARE SOME OF THE biggies. SOME OF THESE OTHER PLACES, WHAT WILL PEOPLE NOT BE ABLE TO SEE?

Renee Bahl: IF YOU LOOK AT A PLACE LIKE YUMA OR TOMBSTONE, THAT'S THE HISTORY OF ARIZONA. YOU GET A HISTORY OF WHERE WE WERE BEFORE AND WHERE WE ARE TODAY. EVEN SHUTTING A PARK DOWN FOR A FEW MONTHS OR SHORT-TERM, YOU'RE ALSO LOSING THE HISTORY THAT THE STAFF HAS TO TELL THE STORY SO PEOPLE CAN KEEP TELLING THE STORY. THAT'S AN IMPORTANT RESOURCE THAT WE NEED TO REMEMBER AS WELL. OUR STAFF RIGHT NOW, WE HAVE A LITTLE OVER 200 STAFF, HAVE 2,600 HOURS -- YEARS OF SERVICE WITH ARIZONA STATE PARKS. 2,600 YEARS.

Ted Simons: AND YET, CRITICS WILL SAY THERE'S STILL TOO MUCH BUREAUCRACY. YOU GOT TO TRIM, YOU GOT TO BE MORE EFFICIENT. HOW DO YOU RESPOND?

Renee Bahl: WE ARE TRIMMED. WE ARE MORE EFFICIENT. WE'RE OPERATING PARKS ONLY THAT MAKE MONEY AND NOT PARKS THAT REPRESENT THE ARIZONA STATE PARK SYSTEM.

Ted Simons: DO YOU THINK THERE'S A LACK OF UNDERSTANDING, WE CAN INCLUDE LAWMAKERS IF YOU LIKE, BUT A LACK OF UNDERSTANDING AMONG ARIZONANS AS TO WHAT STATE PARKS ARE, WHERE THEY ARE AND WHAT THEY DO FOR THE COMMUNITIES?

Renee Bahl: I THINK THERE'S PROBABLY CONFUSION OR MUDDLING BETWEEN A NATIONAL PARK, A STATE PARK OR CITY AND COUNTY PARK. ALL THE PARKS ARE IMPORTANT AND OPEN SPACE AND HISTORY IS IMPORTANT. STATE PARKS ARE THE GEM OF ARIZONA. THAT'S WHAT IS UNIQUE TO ARIZONA, AND THE NATIONAL PARKS ARE UNIQUE TO THE NATION THAT ARE FOUND IN ARIZONA. AND TOGETHER THESE TWO ARE WHAT BRING TOURISTS IN. WE ARE -- WE ARE VERY IMPORTANT PART OF THE TOURISM INDUSTRY HERE, AND ARIZONA NEEDS TO KEEP PUSHING THAT TOURISM INDUSTRY. THAT'S WHAT WE HAVE NOW. THAT'S JOBS ON THE GROUND TODAY.

Ted Simons: LAST QUESTION. ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC THAT SOMETHING CAN HAPPEN TO GET SOME FUNDING BACK TO THIS PARKS DEPARTMENT?

Renee Bahl: I HAVE TO BE OPTIMISTIC. YOU KNOW, YOU CAN CUT OUR BUDGET BUT YOU CAN'T CUT OUR SPIRIT.

Ted Simons: ALL RIGHT. WE'LL LEAVE IT RIGHT THERE. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US. WE APPRECIATE IT.

Renee Bahl: THANK YOU.

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