Payson this week made progress in its negotiations with the State Parks Board to save Tonto Natural Bridge, slated to shut down in June due to the state budget crisis, according to Mayor Kenny Evans.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Bill Konopnicki and others have introduced a bill that would add $9 to the vehicle license fees to fund state parks.
The surcharge on license fees would also give state drivers free entrance to the state park system, prevent the Legislature from diverting entrance fees and provide enough money to keep the state parks system operating.
Payson had offered to take over operation of the park to keep it open during the busy summer travel season in the event state parks ran out of money. However, talks stalled when the state parks administration said any such deal would have to include a $450,000 lease payment this year and a $600,000 payment next year. If the state doesn’t doesn’t make the payments, the park could revert to the donors.
Evans said the town has proposed a way to essentially refinance the $1 million lease payment, which would be repaid from gate fees over an extended period.
The state initially rejected that idea, but is now considering a proposal that would get the lease paid up front and take payments out of gate fees.
Payson is also still negotiating with state parks for flexibility in managing the water system and other aspects of the park’s operation, to keep expenses low enough under Payson’s oversight to cover with entrance fees — in the event the state parks board can’t find any other way to keep the parks open.
Konopnicki’s vehicle license fee charge could provide a long-term solution to the problems of the whole system, if it makes it through the Legislature.
“The parks system is currently operating on about $21 million,” said Konopnicki, “but they really need about $30 million. This should generate better than that.”
Konopnicki said it would be foolish to shut down the state parks system for lack of operating funds, considering the economic benefits the system yields — especially in rural areas.
“The state realizes about $300 million in sales taxes, and cities and counties get about $450 million, and you could double that if we get a lot more people going to state parks,” by offering free entrance to people with state license plates, said Konopnicki.
He said he’s also been following Payson’s negotiations with the state parks system to operate Tonto Natural Bridge, and favors such innovative approaches.
“We need to keep the park open — in district five we’re trying to save five parks and Tonto Bridge is one of them. Mayor Evans and I have discussed it with the state parks board — and (paying off) the note is the biggest problem we’re trying to deal with. We can’t afford to waste the citizens’ money by closing those parks, and this is another option that might work.”
Most of the 28 parks in the system are currently slated to shut down between now and May, due to the Legislature’s repeated sweeps of park operation and maintenance funds. About 22 parks in the system would close, including Tonto Natural Bridge, the world’s largest natural travertine arch.
At its peak, Tonto Natural Bridge drew nearly 100,000 visitors a year to Rim Country and interjected $3.6 million annually into the local economy.
However, weekday closures and confusion about operating hours helped reduce visitation to 65,000 last year.