The state budget crisis this week brought only bad news for state parks, increasing the odds Payson may have to take over the Rim Country’s best-known tourist attraction.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer held a cabinet meeting and press conference to announce even more draconian cuts than the state Legislature embraced last week. Those cuts include a $9 million transfer from various state parks funds that could force a closure of the whole system.
Brewer accepted the Legislature’s cuts and added some of her own including an immediate 5 percent pay cut for state workers, a 7.5 across-the-board cut in all state agencies, a waiting list for the KidsCare child health insurance plan for poor children, and turning over all federal status prisoners to the federal government — mostly people arrested for violating immigration laws.
“We are faced with some of the worst days in our 97-year history,” said Brewer.
She said the deficit has grown to $1.5 billion for the second half of the current fiscal year. The governor and the Legislature have been deadlocked for that whole time, with lawmakers insisting on deep cuts and Brewer calling for a temporary 1 cent sales tax increase. Projections envision a $3.4 billion deficit next year.
Brewer said state spending doubled during the past five years. However, state revenues have dropped by 40 percent in the past three years.
That deficit looms now despite $1 billion in recent budget cuts and a 10 percent reduction in the state work force. The state now needs to raise $700 million just to get through December.
“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary action,” she concluded.
Brewer also called for the establishment of a Privatization Commission to expand the use of private sector services in state government.
Some lawmakers have previously called on the state parks to sell off land and parks or turn them over to private concessionaires.
Payson is already one of a handful of cities that has offered to help run nearby state parks in order to keep them from closing.
Payson has committed $20,000 this year to augment the budget of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, the world’s largest natural travertine arch. The park draws nearly 100,000 visitors annually, who pump $3.6 million annually into the local economy.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said the town and state parks are working on an intergovernmental agreement that would enable the town to start collecting park fees and to pay the state park employees there, even if the rest of the system runs out of money and shuts down.
Moreover, the town has also offered to permanently take over running of the park if necessary to keep it open. In that case, Evans said the town would look for a concessionaire to run it.
Such a public-private partnership would probably involve an investment in new facilities, like reopening the historic lodge to guests, adding cabins along Pine Creek and opening a campground.
The park is already nearly self-sufficient, based on the revenue generated by a $5 entrance fee.
Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce Manager John Stanton said state senator Sylvia Allen, who represents Rim Country, called him and urged him to build support for privatizing Tonto Natural Bridge.
“She said, you have to start talking about public-private combinations to keep the parks open, because they’re going to close.
“So she voted for this whole thing and now is blaming the parks department, so I don’t know.”
Stanton predicted a serious blow to the vital tourist economy in Rim Country if Tonto Natural Bridge shuts down, since many people who drop in to the visitors center in Payson immediately ask directions to the bridge.
However, the latest $9 million cut in state parks could trigger a shutdown of the whole system soon, especially since the parks are already half-way through the fiscal year. The cuts would force the immediate layoff of 75 of the systems 218 permanent positions and the immediate closure of at least half of the parks.
The state has already eliminated all of its contributions to the park’s general fund. However, the sweeps would mean that the Legislature would be taking entrance fees as well as a variety of special funds — some designated by voters.
Although the state parks represent just one-tenth of a percent of the state budget, they’ve been targeted for 5 percent of the latest round of cuts.