Parks Board Considers Extra Budget Meeting

Rim Country officials keep up pressure to reopen Tonto Natural Bridge State Park

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The state parks board may call a special meeting in March to sort through the smoking smolders of its budget, including the recently imposed closure of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park.

In addition, House Republi-cans this week will continue to push for an emergency law to let state parks and other agencies borrow $20 million from a voter-approved open space fund.

That leaves at least two approaches open for Rim Country officials, pushing hard to convince the parks board to reopen Tonto Natural Bridge, which draws more than 90,000 visitors annually to the region.

State parks officials said the main problem for Tonto Natural Bridge remains the need to limit access during critical repairs on a leaky roof that has caused structural problems.

“The access issue with the roof still the primary question,” said Assistant Director Jay Ziemann. “The principle question is the necessity to fix the lodge in a timely fashion, before we’re really looking at more rain that could end up desecrating the building.

The secondary issue is how soon could we get the public back in there based upon the need to get that lodge stabilized.”

Rim Country officials continue to insist that the lodge constitutes only a small percentage of the park, and the state could easily fence the construction area and still let people enter the park.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said he has asked for some aerial photos of the site, so that town engineers could help work out a circulation pattern to get people in and out of the park as construction continued.

He agreed the construction is urgently needed, and shouldn’t be postponed. The parks currently have the roughly $600,000 needed to repair the lodge in leftover maintenance money.

Ziemann said he doubted the parks board would want to delay work on the roof and structural repairs. The bids have already gone out and are due back within the next week or so.

The threat of monsoon rains in the late summer or early snow in the fall argue against a delay in the project, said Ziemann.

Moreover, park officials worry that if they don’t spend the last scraps of maintenance money, the legislature will take what little remains.

The legislature earlier this year swept $34 million out of various park funds, forcing the state parks board to impose a hiring freeze and cut all part-time and seasonal workers. As a result, the system has lost nearly a third of its manpower. That includes the layoff of the tour guides at Kartchner Caverns, the most profitable park in the system.

The parks board has endorsed House Bill 2088, which would allow parks to borrow $13 million from the $65 million in lottery money set aside by voters to buy state trust land to be used as open space on the fringe of urban areas.

“It would make an enormous difference,” said Ziemann.

The operating budget for all 27 state parks stands at about $28 million.

Advocates say the economic downturn will likely stall any open space purchases by the fund because it usually requires matching money at a time when cities are laying off workers. Therefore, the loan wouldn’t actually delay open space acquisition, say backers of the bill.

Critics of the bill dismiss it as illegal and an effort to do an end-run around the will of the voters. Some House Democrats have threatened to sue, making it seem unlikely the legislature will muster the necessary 75 percent approval necessary to adopt the bill.

Environmentalists complain that the bill includes money to buy Colorado River water credits, which would be used to promote development. That goes against the voters’ intention in setting up the fund, say critics.

If that bill doesn’t pass the legislature, the parks board will once again face tough choices.

The board initially voted to close Tonto Natural Bridge and two other parks with serious maintenance problems to both hasten repairs and shift staff to other, hard-pressed parks.

Ziemann said profitable parks like Slide Rock in Sedona and Kartchner Caverns near Benson don’t have enough staff to cope with the surge in visitation during the season. The two full-time workers shifted away from Tonto Bridge could help keep another park open, he said.

Tonto Natural Bridge cost 56 cents per visitor to operate over and above entrance fees last year. However, an increase in the entrance fee from $3 to $4 would probably have made the park profitable this year, say park officials.

Rim Country advocates for the park have pleaded for a reopening quickly, perhaps with the construction site fenced. The bridge remains the best-known attraction in Rim Country, and visitors to the bridge annually spend about $3.6 million in Rim communities, according to studies.

“We’re severely short staffed, that’s the problem we’re facing,” said Ziemann. “We’ll get Tonto Natural Bridge open as soon as possible, but then we’ll probably have to close some other state park — we’re not going to have the budget to go out and hire the people we need.”

However, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said the town and the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce could supply enough volunteers to keep the park open. The parks already plan to leave one full-time ranger on the site, mostly to police the park, maintain basic systems and work with the contractor on the lodge renovation.

Evans said that ranger could provide the law enforcement and the supervision of volunteers necessary to keep the park open —perhaps on a reduced Friday through Monday schedule during the summer.

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