Utah State Park officials told legislators Wednesday that if a proposed $2.8 million cut in general funds for the next fiscal year occurs, parks will be closed.
"We've gone from lean and mean to emaciated and violent," said Department of Natural Resources Director Mike Styler, speaking before the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee.
Legislators asked State Park officials to report on progress made since a legislative audit recommended budget cuts, policy changes and experimental programs in their last session.
The agency has seen its general fund tax dollars cut from $12.2 million in fiscal year 2010 to $6.7 million currently and a proposed $3.9 million for the next budget year.
State Parks Director Mary Tullius said her agency approached 21 local governments to see if they would be willing to take over park management and not one expressed interest.
The agency, whose properties hosted 4.8 million visitors last year that generated $67 million in economic benefit, has cut 43 full-time positions about 18 percent of its workforce since 2010. It eliminated eight law-enforcement positions July 1, and decommissioned 14 other law-enforcement positions.
Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, proposed doing away with all state park and wildlife officers and allowing county sheriffs to enforce fishing, hunting, boating and off-highway vehicle regulations within their jurisdictions.
Tullius said legislators could help increase money coming into state parks by raising camping fees, which she said are among the lowest in the West, and increasing golf course fees. She also said the Legislature should give her agency the flexibility to charge more on busy weekends and reduce them during the week or during times when parks are under-utilized.
Noel said the state should charge federal agencies more to store artifacts collected on public lands in museums such as Edge of the Cedars State Park in Blanding, another park high on the auditor's hit list. And he said that Kane County, an area he represents, might be interested in taking over Coral Pink Sand Dunes because some political leaders there think they could turn a profit on the park.
Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee said that federal and state government agencies keep slashing budgets and expect counties to pick them up, something he said local governments that already subsidize facilities such as parks and recreation centers will have difficulty doing.
Many of the members of the committee expressed support for state parks. Rep. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, expressed support for Frontier Heritage State Park, which requires a state subsidy. He wondered what would happen to the park's collection of items illustrating the area's history should it close.
"There are some things you just can't put a price tag on," he said. "Some parks are in a different category. We need to figure out a way to solve the financial problem and keep parks open."
The meeting was attended by a number of county commissioners and state park friends groups, most of whom urged the Legislature to find a way to keep parks open.
"These are state parks, built for the people of Utah, and the Legislature has an obligation to fund them," said Sanpete County Commissioner Claudia Jarrett, who said it would be devastating to her county if Palisade State Park and its 18-hole golf course were closed.
Former State Park Board Chair Jeff Packer, of Brigham City, now president of Friends of Utah State Parks, questioned the focus of the legislative audit itself, saying "it severely punished a well-managed organization. Not all state parks can be managed as a business."
Tullius said there is a proposal to privatize the Green River State Park golf course, the facility that was tops on the list auditors said legislators should consider closing. In addition, she said that as an experiment Otter Creek State Park was operated for the past six months by a private concessionaire. The contract ended this month and officials are studying whether it was successful.
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