Solution May Save 11 State Parks

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A new solution that would allow Tonto Natural Bridge and 10 other state parks to stay open has emerged from the governor's office.

As explained by Representative Jake Flake, who says he's been working with Gov. Jane Hull on the issue, the newest proposal is a substitute for the plan being pushed by the state parks department a legislative change during this week's special session on the death penalty that would allow interest on Growing Smarter money to be used to keep the parks open.

"(The parks board) proposed using interest on the Growing Smarter fund, and the governor just won't use it for fear of lawsuits," Flake said. "We don't have the right to change the use when people voted on it."

Instead, Flake and the governor want to take the money from the $3.4 million state park enhancement fund.

"The fund is supposed to be split 50-50 between operations and enhancement, and we do have the ability to change that to a 70-30 split," he said. "That's what were working on right now what the governor's office is proposing and what I'm proposing."

Flake admits it was an accounting error that put the parks department in a position where closures were necessary in the first place.

"We really made a mistake and we recognize we made a mistake with the parks department," he said. "When we did a 2.25 percent budget cut, we mistakenly not only cut their budget, but also the Growing Smarter fund that they administer. We have been working hard to come up with a replacement for that $450,000."

Ellen Bilbrey, public information officer for the state parks department, says she believes the new solution will work, although it's not fair.

"He's taking the money from our fund, from our own user fees," Bilbrey said. "It's from the money we've already earned, but we don't have a choice we just take what we get."

Flake admits that park improvements will have to be postponed.

"But," he asked, "what's more important than keeping the parks open?"

In some cases the improvements are very much needed, Bilbrey said.

"We need a $250,000 sewage treatment plant at Tonto Natural Bridge, for example," she said. "All this does is take the maintenance and construction money and put it in the operating budget."

Flake was criticized for not attending a Republican caucus last week at which representatives Debra Brimhall and Randy Graf argued the case for placing the parks issue on the special session agenda.

"Your area is the most critical because it represents so many parks, so Flake is critical," Bilbrey said. "This is an important issue for rural communities and it was a huge mistake that put us in this situation."

Flake said he missed the caucus because he was in Flagstaff on business, and that he knew the session would be unproductive anyway.

"If I thought it could have made a difference, I would have been there," he said. "All they were doing there was fighting over it."

Graf, who represents District 9 where Tubac Presidio State Park is located, has become a forceful proponent for keeping the parks open.

"I jumped on board and during the process I've learned a lot," Graf said. "As much as I want (Tubac Presidio) open, I want them all open."

He promises to stage a special session of his own if the governor won't put the item on the agenda.

"I plan to run something with a super majority of 40 in the house and 20 in the senate," he said. "It would run concurrently with the governor's special session and I think I can get the kind of support I need to do it."

Bilbrey supports Graf's effort.

"He's written up the bill already and he's trying to get people signed on," she said. "He's a real go-getter."

Tubac Presidio is every bit as important to residents in that community as the Tonto Natural Bridge is to the Rim country.

"Our park has been closed for a couple weeks now, just as we were gearing up for one of our bigger celebrations," said Dave Verwys, executive director of the Tubac Chamber of Commerce.

The community kicks off its tourist season each year with Anza Days, a celebration held in the park.

"Juan De Anza, the explorer, started his journey from Tubac and eventually settled San Francisco," Verwys said. This is the 250th anniversary, so we were planning a large celebration."

Verwys realizes that both sides have drawn lines in the sand, but he believes Hull's office has been the biggest stumbling block.

"At this point the obstacle seems to be the governor, and we sure hope she has room to reconsider a little bit," he said. "She has the opportunity to do the right thing."

Flake said the parks department also needs to accept its share of the blame.

"We asked them for a laundry list for each park of things that would save money," he said. "They don't want to look at that. They just want all their money back and we don't have it."

Flake also believes Graf should be less contentious.

"I talked to Randy, and I think he should take a different approach," the legislator said. "He's just trying to take the parks agenda and force it through."

There will be plenty of time later to identify the villain, Verwys said.

"These are fairly extraordinary times and if there's a solution that appears to be available, let's at least explore it fully then go on a search for the guilty later," he said. "This doesn't seem to be the time to engage in that stuff."

The decision by the parks board to close the bridge and 10 other parks "indefinitely" was made last month in response to a $1.3 million cut in the parks department budget by the state legislature part of the cuts made by the state to balance the budget in light of revenue shortfalls caused by the national recession.

In addition to the bridge, Fool Hollow Lake and Homolovi Ruins would join the bridge in closing Nov. 1.

Seven state parks including Tubac Presidio closed July 7. The others already closed are Catalina, Lost Dutchman, McFarland, Oracle, Picacho Peak, and Roper Lake.

Lyman State Park in the White Mountains will close Sept. 3, or sooner if the lake level drops to a certain point. Arizona has a total of 30 state parks.

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