MANATEE -- Terra Ceia State Park and Judah B. Benjamin Confederate Memorial at Gamble Plantation Historic State Park have apparently escaped the state budget ax, as have 51 other Florida state parks.
Earlier this year, the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation and other state government departments were asked to submit a proposal to cut 15 percent of their budgets in the face of an anticipated $4 billion budget shortfall.
But the 53 parks appear to be safe for now.
“They are off the table. It is not at all happening,” Kristin Lock, a DEP spokeswoman, said Friday.
The proposal to close the state parks was not accepted in the governor’s budget and, to date, has not been accepted by the House or Senate budgets, Lock wrote in an email Friday.
It’s not the first time Terra Ceia has been on a proposed closed list, based on low visitation numbers.
In 2008, Terra Ceia was on a list of 19 parks proposed for closing and submitted to former governor Charlie Crist.
“We’ve been given a reprieve,” said June Hartlieb of Tara, who serves as president of the Gamble Plantation Preservation Alliance.
Hartlieb said that her organization will be working to help improve foot traffic to about 60,000 visitors a year, an increase of about 10 percent.
She also revealed that new window dressings, floor finishes and era-appropriate furnishings are being planned for the historic site by the state.
Two other parts of the DEP’s plan to reduce its budget, however, appear to still be in play.
The DEP has proposed closing 11 of its 16 aquatic preserve field offices, including the Tampa Bay Aquatic Preserve Office.
“Should this office be closed, the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve (along with the Boca Ciega Bay, Cockroach Bay and Pinellas County Aquatic Preserves) will not be actively managed, the three full time staff positions will likely be eliminated and the monitoring, outreach and education programs at this aquatic preserve will likely end,” Lock wrote.
Other aquatic preserve field offices proposed for closing are Estero Bay, Biscayne Bay, Milton/Northwest Florida, Central Panhandle/St. Joseph Bay and Jacksonville/Northeast Florida.
The six were chosen as they would be the easiest to reopen should revenue streams improve, Lock said.
“If the legislature accepts this proposal and these six aquatic preserve offices were to be closed, 16 of Florida’s Aquatic Preserves will be unmanaged but the established areas of protection will remain designated aquatic preserves.
Although the aquatic preserves will remain designated, all coastal education and resource monitoring programs at these locations will likely be eliminated.
DEP is exploring potential opportunities to maintain some level of monitoring and educational programs at these sites. Regulatory operations will continue because they are handled out of a separate DEP office,” Lock wrote.
Also included in the DEP proposal is the transfer of three state parks to their owners: Egmont Key State Park owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Three Rivers State Park by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and Forest Capital Museum State Park, owned by Taylor County.
Those parks, if the proposal is accepted by the Legislature, would be transferred back to their owners beginning July 1.
Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, the president pro tempore of the Florida Senate, said Friday that no one wants to cut parks or employees, adding to the unemployment rate.
State agencies tend to propose cutting things that no one really wants to cut, calling it part of the negotiation process, he said.
As agencies focus on their budgets, they tend to find pockets of money, or unfilled positions that can remain unfilled to help meet budget requirements, Bennett said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.