Connecting state and local government leaders
Though there may be greater appreciation for the nation’s parks, many are still fighting for funding. Some states are finding solutions.
In the ongoing struggle to preserve or improve the nation’s infrastructure, most of the conversation has been about roads, bridges, water pipes and the like. Parks don’t often make it onto that list, even though they’re more in demand than ever. The parks’ open spaces and recreational opportunities have provided critical and healthy alternatives to shuttered museums, theaters, arenas and other recreational outlets through much of the pandemic.
More than one-half of the state park systems had annual visitation increases in 2020 from 2019, some at record levels, according to Lewis Ledford, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors. This was true even though the pandemic required that most of the systems close or had restrictions on attendance for weeks or months.
Similar trends prevailed in city parks. The Trust for Public Land surveyed the park systems in the 100 largest cities, and there was a clear pattern of increased usage. “We’ve heard that many were double or triple their normal attendance rates,” reports Will Klein, the Trust’s project manager for parks research.
But even as more people have flocked to state and local parks (the national parks, which are often destination sites, have lost attendance), many have been grappling with sometimes extreme budgetary problems. “Officials know people enjoy parks and greenways,” says Monique Horton Odom, parks director in Nashville, Tennessee. “And yet when it comes time for budget reductions, parks departments are on the chopping block. So, there’s clearly a disconnect.”
In the current fiscal year, Nashville’s parks system lost about 41 full-time equivalency positions in its budget. Moreover, despite receiving $23 million to help deal with deferred maintenance that had been accumulating for some time, Odom’s department still calculates that the city’s parks confront roughly $50 million in deferred maintenance on assets like trails, roofing, paving and golf courses.
In the state parks, “when you’re talking about operational expenses, there’s really no state out there that’s able to cover all of them in the long term,” says Ledford. “And maintenance continues to be a big problem as well. Every state has millions of dollars of backlog in deferred maintenance.” Moreover, it is an even greater challenge to finance capital expenditures and any land acquisition expansion, adds Ledford.
Mississippi’s parks have been among those that have been the most victimized by a shortage of cash. If the current recommended budget for fiscal year 2022, which begins July 1, stands, state park general fund revenues will have been cut by over 60% since 2000 and staffing will have declined by about 70%. For fiscal years 2017 to 2021, general fund contributions to the parks were cut about $2.3 million, reducing their operating budget to a little over $12 million.
As a result, “We try to do more with less, and continue to offer an affordable and enjoyable experience for outdoor recreation for the citizens and visitors to our state,” says Jennifer Head, budget administrator of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “But we aren’t able to provide the amenities that we used to, and we aren’t able to keep up with our maintenance.”
Some in Mississippi have suggested that the state privatize its parks, but the risks inherent in that approach are abundant, and it has failed to be approved so far. As Head warns, “Private companies tend to be for profit so (fees for park attendance and amenities) could rise, out of the control of the state.”
Of course, there’s a huge variety in the way parks are funded. Only one state park system, New Hampshire’s, relies entirely on funds raised by the parks themselves, largely from admission fees and charges for campsite rentals and lodging. The remainder of the states depend on similar sources of revenue in addition to money from the general fund, which is most vulnerable to cuts in economic downturns.
Alternatives are emerging, however.
Connecticut, for example, still relies on general fund revenues to some extent, but after years of which it was far short of that necessary for operations, it changed gears in 2018 by instituting its Passport to the Parks Program. Currently, Connecticut residents who register their motor vehicle every year pay a $5 fee that goes to support the state parks. That’s generating about $20 million a year.
“That was a transformational thing,” says Eric Hammerling executive director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association. “For a decade up until Passport to the Parks, every year there were painful cuts, but we have largely gotten ourselves out of that mess.”
Rhode Island has a similar story. After years of total dependency on general funds, a 2018 study requested by then Gov. Gina Raimondo found the state parks had critically low levels of staff, under-performance of day-to-day maintenance and over-reliance on contractors and seasonal employees.
What’s more, the state’s ability to raise sufficient money from user fees had long been stymied by legislative resistance to raising the money it could charge for park passes for beaches – a major asset of the state parks – to over $30. By contrast, beaches in the state’s municipalities typically charge closer to $120, according to Janet Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).
But, as in Connecticut, Rhode Islanders were willing to foot the bill for better parks by overwhelmingly passing a bond issue March 2 that provided some $74 million for the state’s parks and beaches. Of that, $33 million will be used for investments in major capital improvements in the state’s beaches, parks and campgrounds, according to an explanatory document by the Rhode Island DEM.
It appears that the public generally tends to be willing to support parks with dollars. In November, voters in 48 jurisdictions approved ballot measures for additional funding for state parks. In Portland, Oregon, for example, a five-year parks and recreation local property tax levy was passed that will generate $293 million for parks and other natural areas.
If President Biden’s plans for the pandemic come to pass, any number of recreational outlets other than parks will re-open in coming months. Will that mean that the public’s support for these sanctuaries abate? We can only hope not. Parks will remain one of the cheapest shows in town, and – on the whole -- are much healthier places to spend time than sitting in a dark movie theater chunking down a bigger-than-life box of popcorn.