Budget puts funding for state parks at risk
by Laura Johnson
May 06, 2012 | 2737 views |  0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Alabama State Parks will lose most of its state funding if the House of Representative’s version of the 2012-2013 budget is signed into law.

House Bill 433 calls for the state to take $2 million of the approximately $3 million allocated to state parks annually from the state tobacco tax. If passed, some state park employees stand to lose their jobs, and the public could lose access to parks during the winter months, officials with the system have said.

“It could have a very serious effect on the monies that are used to pay employees, which could in turn cause us to have to lay some people off during our busy season,” Hartley Frederick, superintendent of Cheaha State Park, said recently. “We have been working for the last two years just with the employees that it took to cover everything.

"We don’t have any room to spare.”

In a letter sent to park employees across Alabama, Tim Wishum, the interim director of the park system, wrote that “the loss of state funds may close or partially close some facilities.”

The bill, which was drafted by Gov. Robert Bentley, originally included a $3 million allocation for the state park system. But that allocation was reduced by $2 million once the bill went to the House floor, said Jennifer Ardis, the governor’s spokeswoman.

Last month, Wishum and another state park official went before the Legislature’s Committee on State Parks, which is comprised of Alabama lawmakers from the House and the Senate.

“They seemed to understand and wanted to try to make some changes,” Wishum said.

The committee’s main role is to oversee capital improvement projects in the state park system, said committee member Sen. Cam Ward, R- Alabaster. But many of its members believe the bill would be detrimental to state parks, he added.

“They’re really understaffed as it is,” Ward said. “Losing this money would cripple their ability to manage and maintain, particularly some of the larger state parks. We like to be the leading advocates for our state parks in the Legislature.”

The bill is awaiting action by the Taxation General Fund Committee, which will meet Wednesday. If it passes that committee, it will go before the Senate for a vote.

Ward said the bill will face opposition on the Senate floor.

“I think this legislation is going to have a bumpy road when it gets to the Senate,” he said.

If the bill is approved, it’ll be the second time in two years the park system has lost a large portion of state funding. Last year the park system lost $5 million to the state’s general fund.

That loss will be absorbed by the state park system for two years. According to Wishum, it will be restored to the park system in fiscal 2014.

At $3 million, the state funds the park system at approximately 10 percent. The remaining portion of the park system’s revenue comes from user fees generated at parks.

That means state parks are almost entirely self-sufficient as most money comes from entrance fees, rentals and other revenue-generating park sources, said Thomas Dunlap, a financial analyst for the state park system.

The park system also has been hit hard in recent years. In 2010, it was slammed with the effects of the recession and the Gulf oil spill, which resulted in a significant shortfall in user-fee revenue at the park system’s Gulf location.

Last year, Guntersville State Park took a big hit when a tornado struck, causing approximately $6 million in damage to the park on Lake Guntersville. Most of the cost was absorbed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and by the state park system’s insurance provider, but the tornado still cost the park system $1 million.

State park officials say the system is down to bare-bones operating expenses. That’s reflected, Dunlap said, in the number of employees the state park system has lost in the past 15 years. In 1999, the park system employed 12,000. Through attrition, that number has dwindled to 550, he said.

Though state park officials are already looking at which parks would be most likely to close, the potential impact to the system remains unclear.

“We’re trying to figure out what the ramification would be,” Dunlap said. “It doesn’t look good.”

Star Staff Writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @Ljohnson_star.

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