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No Utah State Parks will close in the foreseeable future and $1.5 million of restricted funds will likely be appropriated in the next fiscal year to help ease the pain of a projected $3 million loss of general tax dollars.
About 25 park employees probably will lose their jobs and major changes are coming in the way state facilities that host 4.6 million visitors a year operate including reduced hours and seasonal closures.
Those were the messages that came out of Thursday's meeting of the legislative committee overseeing the division's budget.
As he explained a recent audit of Utah State Parks, audit supervisor James Behunin talked about a fundamental shift in the way policymakers view park operations. It used to be that lawmakers viewed parks as a public good and didn't mind putting taxpayer dollars into both building and subsidizing facilities such as campgrounds and golf courses. Increasingly, though, states are turning to user fees and are making an effort to force parks to come close to breaking even financially.
There was little support in the audit for outright privatization of parks, though some operations such as running campgrounds and marinas might be contracted out to private businesses as the U.S. Forest Service does.
Sen. Dennis Stowell, R-Parowan said spending on historic parks such as Fillmore's Territorial Statehouse or Cedar City's Frontier Heritage may be justified because of their place in state history and value to communities.
Much of the discussion involving the audit and state parks budget among legislators involved looking at ways to operate facilities more as a business to bring in more revenue and the possible consolidation of law enforcement activities and park operations.
For example, Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, whose son is a county sheriff, wondered if it made more sense for the state to contract with county sheriffs for law enforcement to cut the number of certified state park rangers. Others suggested looking at whether some law enforcement functions of Division of Wildlife Resources conservation officers and state parks rangers could be consolidated.
There were also suggestions that state parks turn to private businesses, communities and other partners to help operate and promote heritage parks and golf courses that require heavy taxpayer subsidies.
"Every park will have a business plan by July 1," parks division director Mary Tullius promised the committee. "We expect innovation from every park in the system."
It appears that legislators will allow the agency to use $1.5 million in restricted funds from user fees and off-highway vehicle registrations to ease the pain of losing $3 million in general taxpayer dollars.
To make up the loss of revenue, Tullius proposed savings of $315,000 in the way the state's four golf courses are operated, $693,872 in savings by closing some parks during slower seasons and managing parks that are near each other as complexes, $54,500 from converting law enforcement officers into other jobs, and reducing programs to the tune of $1,389,472.