Town May Run Tonto Bridge

State cuts may force Payson to operate state park

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“Catastrophic” budget cuts could force the closure of half the state parks this year, but Payson may then take over Tonto Natural Bridge to keep it open.

Payson has already committed $20,000 a year to keep the Rim Country’s best-known tourist draw open, plus established a volunteer organization to provide support.

But the town may have to move to “Plan C” if a just-announced round of state budget cuts takes hold.

State Parks Executive Director Renee Bahl said the cuts outlined at the opening of this week’s legislative special session would “eliminate the agency’s ability to operate” by sweeping some $9 million from various state park funds.

The cuts could force the shutdown of the entire 28-park system by July 1. Economic studies show that the network of historical and recreational parks last year generated some $266 million in economic activity, much of it concentrated in hard-pressed rural communities. Tonto Bridge contributes an estimated $3.6 million to the local economy.

Bahl said the state parks receive no money from the state’s general fund, but have been targeted to provide 5 percent of the $205 million in statewide cuts included in the latest proposal proposal.

“Remember, this is a proposal. It has not been enacted,” cautioned Bahl. But she added, “The proposed cuts would force significant reductions in staff, thereby forcing a closure of much of the park system this fiscal year. Without the revenues that the open parks generate, the agency will be forced to dispose of much of the property that it currently manages.”

Mayor Kenny Evans said Payson will act to keep Tonto Natural Bridge open, since it draws nearly 100,000 visitors annually to a region critically dependent on tourism.

“We have plans b, c and d — right now, we’re in plan b. But one way or the other, we’ll still be one of the parks that will be left open,” said Evans.

The town attorney is now reviewing an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) with the state parks system to take over management of the park.

The agreement would initially keep all of the existing state park employees in place, but the town would pay them out of park revenues. The Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge would continue to supplement the paid staff with a cadre of volunteers.

Currently, the park generates about $250,000 annually in gate fees, but that money goes into the parks general fund.

The Legislature has been dipping into those gate fees to balance the budget elsewhere. Under the IGA, the town would collect the gate fees and use them to operate the park, probably with a continued town subsidy.

The just-announced cuts would probably force the parks system to shift to that approach, perhaps soon.

If the system faces the kind of catastrophic shutdown followed by the sale of park lands that Bahl’s statement suggests, Payson could push for a move to “plan d.”

In that case, the town would seek outright control of the park. The town could then find a concessionaire to run the park, probably by investing the money to reopen the historic lodge, set up a campground and perhaps build and rent cabins — all businesses that operated at the site before the state took it over.

“If the whole system implodes, then we have that potential,” said Evans.

In any case, Evans said Payson is determined to do whatever it takes to keep open the world’s largest travertine arch, which is the first thing many national and international visitors ask about when they stop in the visitor center run by the chamber of commerce.

“But right now, it’s really a function of what the Legislature does. As in so many things, we are being held hostage by the Legislature.”

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