State parks fall victim to tight budgets in Kansas, Missouri and across the nation

Kansas City StarJuly 1, 2013 

LAWRENCE — Monica Haverkamp is ready to heap praise on the upkeep and cleanliness of Clinton State Park. Until she’s asked about the beach.

As she laid out a towel and groomed a spot for tanning at Clinton Lake, Haverkamp ticked off some of the beach’s problems: a lack of sand, weeds overtaking the perimeter, and a nearby culvert cutting across the shore.

On this weekday, she’s the only one on the beach.

“It needs a lot of improvement,” she said. “People aren’t using it like they used to because it’s not as nice.”

Clinton Lake’s beach is a sign of the times at state parks in Kansas, Missouri and across the country as states scramble to preserve outdoor recreation while funding basic services such as schools, police and social services.

The nation’s 7,975 state parks sit in a precarious position with shortened seasons, new admissions fees and threatened closures brought on by budget turmoil in recent years.

They also face mushrooming backlogs of repairs ranging from $26 million in Kansas to $750 million in Illinois to more than $1 billion in California. Park supporters estimate Missouri’s park repair needs at about $400 million.

“It has reached a point where Band-Aids and baling wire are just not quite enough,” said Steve Nagle, Missouri Parks Association president.

In tight budget times, lawmakers regularly put off park upkeep as they scramble to find enough money for basic government services.

“It’s really not a good picture right now,” said Margaret Walls, senior fellow for Resources for the Future, an energy and environmental policy think tank.

States have been gradually getting out of the business of bankrolling parks since the 1990s, sometimes cutting costs or replacing general tax dollars with new fees or dedicated taxes that are less vulnerable to the whimsy of legislators.

“There has been this death by a thousand cuts,” said Richard Dolesh, vice president for conservation and parks at the National Recreation and Park Association.

In 1990, general tax dollars covered about 60 percent of a state park’s budget. By 2011, that had dropped to 34 percent.

The spending cuts and delayed repair work, suggest some organizations, have left the country’s park infrastructure in barely passable condition.

Earlier this year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a C- for the condition of its park infrastructure. It said states and local governments can’t keep up with recreational needs because of shrinking budgets.

The group pointed to federal data showing that the states had an $18.5 billion wish list for outdoor recreational facilities for which there is no money, including $523 million in Kansas and $2 billion in Missouri.

South Carolina lists $155 million in deferred park maintenance. Texas estimates its backlog at somewhere between $400 million and $700 million, needing roughly $64 million every two-year budget cycle to maintain its system of more than 90 parks. This year, the state received $11 million from the Texas Legislature for capital improvements.

New York officials last year identified more than $1 billion in needed park work, including some sites where conditions were so bad that areas had to be roped off to protect the public. In some cases, amenities were closed off completely to ensure safety.

Last year, New York agreed to spend $89 million in park improvements, money that was used to attract private and federal funds for a total infusion of $143 million. It was billed as the the single largest sum of money spent on the state park system.

Illinois, meanwhile, this year started charging an extra $2 for license plate renewals to help battle a $750 million list of deferred maintenance at state parks.

Kansas reports a backlog of $26 million in needed maintenance at its 26 parks, many designed and built roughly 40 years ago.

The park system needs electrical upgrades to better serve snazzy new campers of the 21st century, replacement of aging open-air showers and rebuilding the beach at Clinton Lake.

A lot of work — replacing sewer lagoon liners for example — is largely invisible to campers. But it could ultimately prompt the closing of big swaths of a park or inconvenience campers if equipment breaks down.

“We’ve got some facilities that really need to be updated,” said Kansas Wildlife and Parks Secretary Robin Jennison.

But the state budget for the fiscal year starting today only appropriates $10.6 million for parks, of which $9 million comes from user fees and lottery proceeds. The state plans to use $875,000 for capital projects. The parks budget in 2007 was about $10.1 million, but it received about half its money at that time from general tax dollars.

No general state tax dollars are going toward Kansas parks this year, compared with $5.1 million in 2007.

Jennison is trying to wean the agency off of legislative appropriations and make it self-sufficient without competing against other state needs.

“When you rely on general tax support … you do not have the stability of income to make those kind of long-range plans,” Jennison said.

For example, the agency arranged a deal to pay off cabins that were financed by the nonprofit group Kansas Wildscape Foundation, which raises money to help fund outdoors projects in Kansas.

In paying off the loan, the state gained access to an estimated $800,000 to $1 million in cabin fees that would otherwise have been committed to paying off the cabins.

The state also moved forward with a plan to sell annual state park passes at a $9.50 discount to drivers registering their cars.

Modeled after a similar plan in Michigan, the state hopes it can raise nearly $2 million more for parks by tapping into a broad base of potential park users who might be inclined to buy a discounted park pass when registering their car.

Jennison concedes the deferred maintenance list probably won’t be wiped clean during his tenure at the agency. But he thinks the public will be satisfied with the condition of state parks.

“The average person going to the parks — I don’t think they’re going to see it,” he said. “I think they’re going to see some parks that are in pretty good shape.”

But park visitors are pretty observant. They like the parks but see signs of wear and tear like wood benches in the showers that are decaying.

“They do an outstanding job with the facilities that they have to work with, but clearly the facilities are starting to show their age pretty seriously,” said Clinton Lake camper Richard Lee of Topeka.

In Missouri, Gov. Jay Nixon this year persuaded lawmakers to put $20 million more into parks.

“Investing in Missouri’s state parks today will help preserve our outdoor heritage,” Nixon told legislators earlier this year.

But even in a state that receives sales tax money dedicated for parks, there’s worry that Missouri is falling behind on its maintenance.

The state provided a list showing about $28 million in deferred building maintenance. Officials acknowledged it did not include other types of park infrastructure such as roads and sewers. The Missouri Parks Association said it has figures from the state showing the backlog at about $400 million.

Nagle attributed the money shortage to the state pulling its general tax funding after the introduction of a sales tax for parks in the mid-1980s.

Park supporters acknowledge that Missouri campers may not notice the aging infrastructure. But letting it go unattended risks that sections of a park could close if something malfunctions. They want the state to consider issuing bonds for upgrades.

“At least they can get started,” said Susan Flader, past president of the Missouri Parks Association. “The $20 million is going to be just a small amount of what remains there to be done.”

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