State parks have "great value" – but not to budget writers|
Georgia Online News Service
Georgia's budget crunch has brought to the forefront a debate about the state parks system that has been brewing quietly and runs far deeper than funding concerns.
Philosophical differences have arisen over how some of the state's 63 parks, recreational facilities and historic sites should be operated, as Appropriations committees in the General Assembly begin to dig into the details of the upcoming budget.
Gov. Sonny Perdue has proposed cutting the budget of the state Department of Natural Resources, which oversees parks and recreation, from $303.9 million in the current fiscal year to $279.8 million for fiscal year 2010, which begins July 1.
The current parks budget of $70.4 million includes $27.4 million in general funds. Perdue wants to slice some $9 million, or about one-third of the existing state total, and is asking the Legislature for $18.4 million. His overall request for Georgia parks comes to $61 million.
DNR also protects the environment, which accounts for the largest share of its budget with $122 million, regulates hazardous waste, supervises wildlife and marine resources and manages historic preservation efforts.
No state-operated parks are proposed for closure, but a third of Perdue's proposed cuts in that area – roughly $3 million – would come from maintenance and repairs. Another $406,000 would be cut from purchase of vehicles.
The governor also wants to privatize the eight state-run golf courses and has called for eight swimming pools located at state parks to be closed.
The future of the golf courses could prove to be the most hotly contested issue in the parks budget. Traditional parks advocates argue that the courses – most of them located in remote, rural locations – were not created for strictly commercial purposes.
Those in favor of looking at private alternatives point to two state-owned, privately managed courses as successful examples of a different model that ought to be considered.
"The goal is to find the most efficient and responsive ways to offer these services to our citizens," said Becky Kelley, director of the DNR's Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites Division. "There are a lot of things that are being dealt with philosophically. It's fair to expect there to be some discussion on where we are and where we're going."
Earlier this fall, supporters of the state park system mobilized after the state DNR board, a citizens advisory panel, recommended that seven parks and six historic sites either be closed or substantially reduce their operating hours. Those proposals mostly were staved. But a regional office on historic sites would be closed and five jobs eliminated, under Perdue's budget plan.
Serious park infrastructure issues also remain.
"It's good that [park closings] are not on the table now, and it reflects that people who use Georgia parks spoke out," said Andy Fleming, executive director of the Friends of Georgia Parks and Historic Sites, a 7,600-member nonprofit group that he acknowledges is developing a stronger advocacy edge. "But we're still very concerned about the large cuts that have been proposed."
Fleming pointed in particular to the maintenance and repair budget, which has been reduced every year since 2002. "It's the cumulative effect of all those years of cuts," he said. "Some vehicles are getting very old. They're being held together."
According to DNR figures, parks facilities produced about $32 million in revenues as late as fiscal year 2007. Roughly a dozen state parks make money, but an equal number operate in the red. None of the golf courses operate with net profits. Perdue's budget recommendations would save nearly $1.5 million in state expenses.
"Privatizing them is the future," DNR board member Thomas Wheeler said. The state agency "has some great career people working for it," Wheeler said. "But there are some things that can be outsourced."
The state owns golf resorts at Brasstown Valley in the mountains and the Lake Blackshear Resort at the Georgia Veterans Memorial Park near Cordele. Both facilities are managed by a Florida-based resort management company.
"I've never engaged in a debate, but you always need to [show] how you can do something better and cheaper," Wheeler said. "If we can operate as good or better than we've been doing, that sounds like a good deal to me."
Fleming's organization focuses its efforts on parks issues, but he said he is concerned about the fate of the golf courses. He said the original intent of the state parks —to provide Georgia citizens with affordable, non-commercial recreation options — is at stake.
"They weren't designed to be revenue producers," Fleming said. "The question now is, 'How do we make these facilities pay for themselves?' That's a sea-change in the attitude about what they're here for. We're in danger of making parks inaccessible to a large part of the population."
The DNR's Kelley says a "new dynamic is required" in addressing severe budget shortfall. It's one that likely will linger long after lawmakers confront those choices during the current legislative session, she said.
"Our leaders agree that our state parks have great value," Kelley said. "Our goal is to give them as much good information as we can to help them with their decisions."