The Payson Town Council Thursday unanimously approved a “handshake” agreement to take over operations of Tonto Natural Bridge State Park to avert its scheduled shutdown in May.
“The state budget continues to spiral downward — best analogy I could come up with was like a toilet,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, who has engaged in months of shuttle diplomacy with state parks officials.
He said Payson and state parks officials have a “handshake agreement” that would enable the town to essentially take over operations in May, paying two rangers and operating costs with gate fees and donations.
But the town has also worked out “scenarios,” depending on what happens to the state budget. The state legislature has repeatedly swept state parks funds to balance the state’s general fund budget, finally forcing the state parks board to announce the closure by May of most of the sites in the 28-park system.
Evans said the inability of lawmakers to cope with a multi-billion-dollar deficit both this year and next has made planning a nightmare.
“It’s like we’re in a room full of marbles and someone flips the light off. I wish I could say reason and logic were involved, but I’m afraid I can’t say that,” said Evans.
The recently formed Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge has vowed to raise money to either augment the operating budget or promote the world’s largest travertine arch. “We would like to raise as much money as we can as soon as we can,” said Councilor John Wilson, who serves on the Friends board.
At its peak, the cavernous arch drew nearly 100,000 visitors annually, who pumped $3.6 million into the local economy. Last year, with a closure, months of uncertainty and weekend-only operations in the summer, visitation fell to 65,000.
Evans said the town won’t spend any local taxpayer money but could use gate fees, raise private money, cut costs for water and sanitation and enlist volunteer support to keep the park open through at least October.
The town continues to negotiate with state parks officials to prepare for even more drastic cuts.
Evans noted that if the legislature sweeps so much funding that the state parks system simply can’t continue to operate, the town could take over operations and contract with a private firm to run it.
“In the event we had to go to Plan D, heaven forbid,” said Evans, “it would involve an ironclad agreement with a concessionaire. In any case, we will not be pulling any tax money out of the town of Payson.”
The key breakthrough in the negotiations came recently when both sides identified a funding source to make a $450,000 balloon payment this year and another $500,000 next year to complete purchase of the site.
Evans said town officials hope the state parks system survives and continues to operate Tonto Natural Bridge, but is also preparing for the worst.
The legislature “swept everything — gate fees, impound funds they’d been accumulating for years. Then they figured, ‘we got away with this — now we can do something even worse,’” said Evans.
“So in the event of both hell and high water, we would take over operation of the park. But we will do the least intrusive thing we can do that will keep the park open.”