State park officials get praise from legislators
Budget • Parks not facing additional cuts, closures.
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A year after being threatened with loss of general funds and park closures, Utah State Parks received high marks from legislators and auditors Tuesday at a budget hearing.

Under the current plan, the agency's budget would remain the same next year. Though much of the agency's budget will be supported by user fees, State Parks would receive $4 million in general funds and an additional $2.8 million from one-time restricted funds. No parks are slated for closure.

The agency's $30 million annual budget contains a mixture of fees collected from state parks, off-highway vehicle and boating gas tax and registration funds, federal dollars, dedicated credits and general tax dollars.

The only major park user fee increase proposed would be an approximate 10 percent jump in golf green fees that will add between $1 and $1.50 for the cost of nine holes, plus an increase of a $1 for each nine holes per golf cart. If passed by the full legislature, these increases would go into effect July 1.

A year ago, a legislative audit suggested possible park closures, reductions in general tax dollars to state parks, privatization of some parks and better business practices.

While telling state park leaders that substantial progress had been made on those recommendations, auditors said a new look at the agency this year shows that it is still in the process of implementing the auditors' 13 major recommendations.

Acting State Parks Director Fred Hayes told legislators that his agency reduced its budget by $3 million a year ago, eliminated 23 full time positions, combined management of individual park units and experimented with privatization at three facilities. He requested more fee flexibility from legislators in the future.

State park visitation increased last year to 4.8 million, about the same number that ski areas and national parks host annually in Utah.

Auditor James Behunin said legislators need to decide whether they are willing to fund recreational activities such as golf, marinas and campgrounds with general tax dollars in the future.

Those sentiments were echoed somewhat by Ron Bigelow, the governor's budget director and a former legislator, who said parks needed direction from the Legislature on "just what you want parks to be. And then you need to set the tone and funding to match that."

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribtomwharton