Tennessee state parks avoid budget crisis, continue upgrades
Posted: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 10:07 pm
NASHVILLE (AP) — While other states are closing parks and delaying projects, Tennessee’s state parks have averted a budget crisis and are keeping up maintenance and repairs on facilities across the state.
The state budget includes more than $10 million for major upgrades to state parks this year, a sharp difference from 2003 when a budget crisis forced parks to close and charge admission fees.
Jim Fyke, head of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conser-vation since 2003, says Tennessee’s political leaders, including outgoing Gov. Phil Bredesen, have kept politics out of the parks.
“Why no crisis? The governor’s leadership,” Fyke told The Tennessean. “He believes tax dollars should go to people’s quality of life. … A lot of these states are using state parks as a political ploy for tax increases or raising fees.”
Fyke will be leaving his post this week when Republican Gov.-elect Bill Haslam is inaugurated.
But while he’s leaving his successor with no funding crisis, Fyke said the state’s parks still need millions of dollars in crucial maintenance and improvements. One improvement this year is $3 million to demolish the inn at Reelfoot Lake and build eight new cabins to replace it.
“Maintenance has taken some cuts, 20 percent since 2003,” Fyke said. “We’ve run very lean. Any further reductions will cause serious problems with keeping all 53 state parks open.”
The department has about $2 million a year for immediate maintenance needs, but with 1,500 buildings at 53 parks across the state, the total ongoing maintenance needs account for about $90 million.
For larger projects that cost more than $100,000, such as new lodging or marinas, the state gets about $10 million a year, Fyke said.
“I don’t think we’re backing up on the capital projects,” Fyke said. “On small projects, we are backtracking on that.”
That’s because lawmakers are urged to set aside between $5 million and $10 million for a maintenance fund that’s separate from the annual parks budget, “So you wouldn’t be there fighting every year with budgets for maintenance,” Fyke said. “It is the only way to do anything with that maintenance backlog.”
Nationwide, park managers and advocates say that delaying maintenance risks making repairs more costly in the long-term. Robin Dropkin, executive director of the advocacy group Parks & Trails New York, said visitors may stop coming if parks and recreation areas are allowed to decay.
“Who wants to go into a restroom that is falling apart?” Dropkin said. “Who wants to drink water that may be questionable?”
A usage study of state parks by the University of Tennessee found that visits can contribute a lot to local economies.
In the fiscal 2008 year, 16.9 million people visited state parks, and their total spending during these trips contributed $1.5 billion directly or indirectly to Tennessee’s economy and to the local economies of many rural counties. That equals a return of $37 for every state dollar budgeted for parks during the fiscal year.
“For our rural counties, the state park may be the only park where they can go for recreation,” Fyke said. “But it also brings in local sales tax, occupancy taxes.”
Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com
Published in The Messenger 1.11.11