After several years of substantial budget cuts, Arizona State Parks are facing significant financial challenges. The agency’s director, Renee Bahl, discusses the impacts of budget cuts and strategies to keep the parks open.
Ted Simons: Arizona State Parks continue to face mounting financial challenges. The agency has not received any state general fund assistance for several years. This year lawmakers continue to take money from other funds the park uses. Earlier I spoke about the situation with Renee Bahl, Director of Arizona State Parks. Thanks for joining us on "Horizon."
Renee Bahl: Thank you.
Ted Simons: What is the state of Arizona State Parks?
Renee Bahl: Well, on the positive side we have 27 out of 30 State Parks open today. We talked a little over a year ago, and we were almost going to close two thirds of them due to lack of funding. In the meantime, we've developed a number of partnerships that have specifically kept 16 Parks open. So today, 27 open.
Ted Simons: OK, we're talking community partnerships here?
Renee Bahl: It's community partnerships with local governments, cities, counties, towns, nonprofits. They have come in and in some cases are actually paying us cash for the operating loss of that park, to keep that park open. In other cases they are providing in-kind resources. Probably our most successful partnership has been with the Hopi tribe for Homalovee state park. The tribe came in and has offered $175,000 to keep that park open for a year. It's open now for a year for the public to enjoy.
Ted Simon: For these community partnerships there has to be an agreement. There has to be a little on one side and a little on the other. Is the State able to keep the obligations going on these?
Renee Bahl: Well, we're certainly trying. Our problem or challenge at Arizona State Parks is we need to be able to spend the money that we bring in at the parks, the gate fees. That's been hampered by our appropriation level. The level where we're allowed to expend money is lower than the money we'll bring in. We'll bring in 10 million dollars, but we're only allowed to spend 8.9. We need that full amount of money to keep these partnerships alive.
Ted Simons: We're talking $75 million in the last two years?
Renee Bahl: In almost three years, that much has been swept.
Ted Simons: With the latest sweeps, the enhancement fund, what is that?
Renee Bahl: It's the gate fees, when you pay to enter a park or to camp. It's used for operations and, back in the good old days, some development of state parks. We've had $2 million swept in fiscal year 2012, the coming fiscal year.
Ted Simons: So basically, money paid to the Parks has been swept into the general fund?
Renee Bahl: Correct.
Ted Simons: Also swept from you, millions from the state lake improvement fund. What is that?
Renee Bahl: That's a portion of the gas tax that comes to Arizona State Parks by law, a portion that's meant to propel watercraft. That portion that people use to fill up their boats comes for agency operations.
Ted Simons: Licenses fees, as well?
Renee Bahl: A little bit of licensing fees, as well.
Ted Simons: You have those two sweeps there. From a distance that sounds like a cash flow problem. How do you pay the rent, keep the lights, pay employees?
Renee Bahle: Well, first of all, we have almost half of our positions vacant. Three years ago we had 353, 380 bodies. Yesterday we had 169 and it's going down. We're in a very tight cash flow situation because State Parks needs to have the money in the bank to pay at the beginning of the month. Our revenues come in cyclically, typically in the Spring. But you have regular payments due every month, in the first quarter you have the most payments due. We're budgeting on a very tight budget right now.
Ted Simons: And you've also got, I would imagine, concerns with wildfires and increasing gas prices, would affect State Parks, would they not?
Rene Bahl: Absolutely, increasing gas prices reduce that state lake improvement fund because there's not as much user demand for gas. And our gate fees, the enhancement funds, people are less likely to fill up their R.V.s because it's very expensive, so then we see fewer visitors at the park. We get the double whammy with gas prices going up.
Ted Simons: Ok, the Arizona Parks are looking for new models of operation here. Some ideas splitting parks intog, quasi-governmental agencies. Seemed like the bottom line of the report seemed to be that privatization, something's got to happen there in some way, shape or form. Is that is how you read that report?
Renee Bahl: That is one way to read that report. We have had very successful partnerships with the private sector. They can add value, different concessions and rentals. It was nonprofit-based report. It found that the private sector is not going to be interested in those areas where they can't make revenue. So you have your core things, habitat, maintenance, law enforcement, firefighters, you're never going to make revenue off of those. So the private sector can step in on those revenue making activities, but the state or the public sector still needs to provide those core services. So we have to find a way where we can work together in a win-win situation. Bu really, the bottom line is we need a sustainable funding source, no matter how many private partnerships that we have, we need to have a system that can stay open that is safe and doesn't have this deferred maintenance backlog.
Ted Simons: The idea of public-private partnerships, though, it sounds like a lot of people in the legislature are saying that's not going to happen for a long while. And there needs to be concerted effort regarding privatization. How far can the state go? Are there certain parks that could be amenable to privatization? Could you name parks, give naming rights and these sorts of things?
Renee Bahl: Privatization is all in how you define it. It could be the entire park operation or a portion of park operation. In Arizona, we, the state of Arizona, don't own most of the State Parks land. It's a patent from the Bureau of Land Management, or a lease from the forest service. So we as a state don't have authority for everything that can be done on that land. But I think there's ample opportunity to bring in more visitors and bring in more money. We have a number of concessions at big recreation State Parks, jet ski rentals, different boat rentals, equestrian rentals, those are adding value to the park for visitors.
Ted Simons: Some lawmakers are saying the continued sweeps in the current budget is also a way for them to tell you guys, you need to step up this privatization. You need to look harder at this and get going on this because that money is going to be difficult to come by, as long as they are sitting in office. How do you respond to that?
Renee Bahl: Well we started with - this will be a bureaucratic answer - a request for information. There was a request for information that was a solicitation to the private sector. What part of Parks operations are you interested in doing, so we can find a win-win situation. That was put out lWe've had the responses in. We've met with the different concessionaires that responded so we can craft meaningful agreements and requests for proposals. There's a win-win solution there but it's not just an overnight solution. Andw e have put other RFPs out and there have been no responders. We're not going to waste our limited resources putting something out there's no interest in. I think we're on a better path now.
Ted Simons: I know there are a lot of ways to create revenue. One of them involves "Arizona Highways." Talk about this State Parks guide.
Renee Bahl: "Arizona Highways" has been another great partner out there. Their main issue focuses on Arizona State Parks. The photos, as always, are completely phenomenal. There are stories and a little history and a lot of information about our state park system. In addition, with "Arizona Highways" there's the, if you get a subscription or a new subscription, $5 can go to the park of your choice. So we've been very happy to have that partnership with them. I encourage everybody to see it.
Ted Simons: Obviously a tough time for the parks right now. Is there light at the end of the -- Well, whatever tunnel you want to -- I mean, there is something happening out there that gives you encouragement that things could improve? Whether it's a new mode of operation or a new paradigm?
Renee Bahl: There's always light at the end of the tunnel. I know the people of Arizona believe in the outdoors, we are the Grand Canyon State. I think we'll continue to work with the private partners and public partners who can't let parks close for their communities. We'll have a better park system long in the future than we have now, it's just going to be a really dark road to get there.
Ted Simons: Renee, good to see you, thanks for joining us. Tomorrow on "Horizon," the new speaker of the house Andy Tobin will talk about his plans for the chamber, and we'll get an inside look at the national high school mock trial competition held this week in Phoenix. That Wednesday at 7:00 on "Horizon." to see any previous edition of "Horizon," see what we have in store for the future, perhap, check us out at azpbs.org/horizon. Thanks for joining us. You have a great evening.
Renee Bahl:Director, Arizona State Parks;