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State Parks board puts off decision on closing parks

With one round of legislative budget cuts behind him and more looming, Arizona State Parks Executive Director Ken Travous said April 3 that heart-wrenching decisions eventually will need to made about closing parks.

"Right now, were having to decide which of our children we're going to feed," he told members of the Arizona State Parks Board. "And they're all my children."

Board members decided April 3 to wait on adding to three parks already shuttered until the Legislature determines how much it plans to cut from the Arizona State Parks' budget for the fiscal year beginning in July. However, the board granted the agency authority to limit park hours by up to two full days per week if necessary.

After trimming operations and cutting grants for parks, trails and historic preservation, the agency has enough money to operate remaining parks if lawmakers don't cut anything, Travous said. But it would be a pipe dream to think they won't, he added.

Travous said he expects cuts of up to $12 million for fiscal 2010 against a total budget of around $23 million.

Meanwhile, the board unanimously agreed to support HB 2088, sponsored by Rep. Warde Nichols, R-Chandler, which would help prevent park closures by temporarily reallocating money from the Growing Smarter Fund voters created in 1998 to conserve land.

That legislation, which would require a three-quarters vote from both chambers, was awaiting a final vote in the House.

At one point, board member Larry Landry introduced a motion to close Slide Rock State Park, which wasn't on a list of potential closures, saying later that he wanted to show the Legislature the consequences of its cuts. No other board member supported the motion.

"If we have to close parks, then let those legislators in those districts reopen them," Landry said.

In February, the board approved a plan to close Tonto Natural Bridge State Park near Payson, Jerome State Historic Park and Florence's McFarland State Historic Park for repairs through at least June 30.

Jay Ream, assistant parks director, said that construction at McFarland and Tonto won't be done until September. He said December is the best-case end date for the Jerome renovation, so the board may elect to keep the parks closed longer.

Mike Vogel, a member of the Payson Town Council, said every day Tonto stays closed means lost income for businesses depending on tourists. Volunteers could keep the park open, he told the board.

"The town of Payson is more than willing to step up and help you in way we can," he said. "Whatever it takes."

But Ream cautioned against manning parks solely with volunteers, saying the liability is too great.

To bridge $34 million in cuts for fiscal 2009, the board on Feb. 20 authorized the agency to draw money for operations from the Heritage Fund, which uses lottery proceeds to provide grants for projects around the state. Those cuts affected 120 grants in all.

Rick Fernau, mayor of Show Low, told the board that development of the town's Nikolaus Homestead Park, funded by a nearly $500,000 Heritage Grant, had to be halted then when the funds were swept.

"We're concerned about our ability to go and get competitive bids in the future if our contractors know we can just cancel contracts," he said.

Board member Landry questioned canceling grants over closing parks.

"We're dealing in imaginary horribles at the expense of many things," he said. "We're making it too easy by saying that we'll rape and kill every program to keep parks open."

But Travous said closing state parks would have a much bigger financial impact on the state than canceling grants.

"You haven't seen anything yet," he said. "When you start shutting parks down, it will pale in comparison."

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