State park closures considered again due to budget cuts

State parks may again be on the chopping block.

The state budget crisis drove additional cuts to the state parks budget before Georgia’s fiscal 2010 budget was approved Friday by the General Assembly. This leaves parks officials scrambling to figure out how to make up the difference, and they are again considering closure, privatization or other changes to park access.

The 2010 budget passed Friday cuts the state parks money by almost 40 percent, to $16.8 million from $27.4 million. The Senate budget report also includes the directive: “Pursue a strategy of self-sufficiency for all golf course, lodge and park operations.” Parks are nowhere near self-sufficient, and weaning them off state funding would be a major policy change. Although they are expected to earn about $37 million this year in fees and services, their total budget is about $70.4 million, according to the state Senate budget report.

“This was done pretty late in the day Friday, and we have not had a chance to get clarity,” said Becky Kelley, director of the state parks, recreation and historic sites division. “Honestly, I don’t see how we can absorb this degree of reduction in our budget without some impact on park and historic sites. I think there will be a difference in how we conduct our business and in access to parks.”

Last fall, when the state Department of Natural Resources proposed closing some of the state’s 63 parks or historic sites to achieve budget goals, some elected officials protested that parks always were intended as a service rather than a source of income. The Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee sent the DNR back to the drawing board, and a budget without park closures emerged.

Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus, serves on that committee. He has advocated keeping parks in his district open, including Sprewell Bluff State Park in Upson County. But this week he noted that all state departments suffered painful cuts and said he was pleased that parks retained as much funding as they did.

“If we can get parks more sufficient, then our state parks, which (are) our most valuable resource, can survive,” he said. “I can safely say that, if not for the federal stimulus, we would have been forced to close them.”

The budget, which would go into effect July 1, has yet to be finalized by Gov. Sonny Perdue’s signature and could still change.

At various times during the last year, internal DNR documents showed that the state was considering privatizing state park lodges and golf courses, handing off parks or historic sites to nonprofits or local governments, and closing about 14 parks or historic sites. Candidates for closure changed over time. Changes in days or hours of operation also have been considered.

Kelley said her department already is in discussions to privatize the golf courses. It’s also looking for ways to increase revenues or reduce expenses through partnerships, she said.

Andy Fleming, executive director of the nonprofit park support organization Friends of Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites, said his group has begun early discussions about services it could provide if the state can’t.

There are 40 individual Friends chapters supporting individual parks, many of which already provide volunteers to conduct trail maintenance and educational activities.

“I don’t know if we’re going to be able to substantially increase their capability in response to the budget crisis,” he said. “I don’t think we really anticipated these enormous cuts and the accelerated timeline.”

He noted that if parks are closed, they run the risk of vandalism and deterioration, which could reduce their value and make it even more expensive to reopen them.

Park facilities are overdue for maintenance and equipment replacement, which has been repeatedly postponed. But Kelley said the General Assembly approved a $5 million bond issue for capital expenditures, which should help.

Trail maintenance, campground renovations and other repairs also are funded through parking fees for state parks and admission fees for state historic sites.

Last month, the state proposed raising the parking fee from $3 to $5 per car and from $30 to $50 for annual passes. (Disabled veterans would also pay more than in the past, but a new discount would be added for active military and other veterans.)

Historic site admission prices wouldn’t increase as part of the proposal, said Kim Hatcher, state parks communications director.

So far, feedback on the proposed increase seems to be split evenly between opponents and supporters, Kelley said. The increase is open to public comment until April 24. If the DNR board approves the change April 28, the new fees would become effective May 20, Kelley said.

Even if the increase is approved, it is expected to raise about $1.25 million more annually, a fraction of the parks’ budget shortfall.

DNR documents from late last year show at least three Middle Georgia parks have been discussed for possible closure or varying degrees of privatization: Sprewell Bluff, Georgia Veterans State Park in Cordele and Little Ocmulgee State Park in Wheeler County. Sprewell Bluff was on almost every state closure list.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.