So a foolish carpenter goes into a bar and orders a drink. “How you going to pay for it?” asked the skeptical barkeep.
“Put it on my tab,” says the fellow grandly.
“You’re tabbed out,” says the bartender.
So the foolish carpenter clunks his tool bag on the table. “This should cover it,” he grins.
Metaphorically, this closely resembles the state Legislature’s policy concerning its precious state parks system. Scrambling to pay its overdue bar tab, the Legislature has gutted the budget for the 28-park system, which once upon a time pumped the $266 million spent by travelers into rural economies.
A report commissioned by the Arizona Parks Foundation took a close look at whether the state should turn to private firms to run the parks system at a profit.
The report makes some incisive points and raises some telling concerns. The report offered support for the idea that Tonto Natural Bridge State Park could cover its costs if it included a campground, lodge, expanded gift shop and restaurant. The report listed the park in the middle range of potentially profitable operations and pointed out the great advantage the park has with the close relationships forged with Payson, volunteer-supported Friends of Tonto Natural Bridge, Star Valley and the Tonto Apache Tribe.
However, the report included a stark warning. Currently, the state parks system’s operating budget stands at about $18 million with fees of $11 million. No doubt, private companies would be happy to take over busy, profitable parks — like Slide Rock, Kartchner Caverns and the recreation parks along the Colorado River. But if the state gives away that revenue, the rest of the system will collapse.
If that happens, the state would lose a vital part of its heritage and already struggling rural towns would suffer a serious economic blow.
The image of the carpenter squandering his livelihood to settle a bar bill seems apt. The report says in the past three years visitation and spending have dropped sharply — costing the state an estimated $44 million in tax revenues. That total dwarfs the roughly $7 million subsidy for park operations in the current year’s budget.
That’s why we hope the Legislature will explore the report’s suggested establishment of a quasi-governmental agency to run the parks. Such an agency could work with private contractors and partners like Payson to maximize revenues — but still use money generated by the profitable parks to protect the rest of the system.
Such an agency could also finally escape the destructive effects of the Legislature’s inconsistent, but crippling raids on state parks funding. That way when the Legislature tries to shake off the hangover from its next bender, someone will have stashed the tools needed to rebuild the economy safely behind the bar.
Rim Country under siege
Payson looks pretty much as it always does — a small, bustling town laid out along the highways, with quiet homes scattered among the trees. Small town, USA — a perfect place to raise kids and draw in a full breath of air.
In truth, Payson has become a community under siege — like so many other small towns all across a proud, but humbled land.
Consider this startling statistic from the Payson Unified School District: The number of students whose families have incomes low enough to qualify for free and reduced lunches has jumped 41 percent — and now comprises a majority of the children in this community.
That might surprise you — but it won’t surprise the volunteers nearing the end of the community food drive.
Food banks have struggled to cope with a surge in pleas for help in the past two years. In just the period from October to December, Rim Country food banks have handed out 133,800 pounds of food to 7,475 requests for help from our friends and neighbors. Most of these are good people who have never needed help before, but they have been forced by this interminable drought of jobs to line up just to feed their children.
Groups like Payson Helping Payson, St. Vincent de Paul and many of this community’s rich treasure of churches have worked desperately to fill the need, with lots of help from this always, good-hearted community.
The food drive has raised an extra $18,000 and 35,000 pounds of food, with the end of the crusade now looming. We hope that you will give and then give again. The group hopes to raise another $7,000 in cash and 20,000 pounds of food before Super Bowl Sunday.
In the meantime, we hope you will also remain politically active to ensure that the Legislature considers the real hardship of people who cannot find a job in these troubled times, through no fault of their own. The federal school lunch program provides a perfect example, providing the best meal of the day for many homes where parents must choose between paying the rent and buying the groceries.