Audit may mean closures, changes at Utah State Parks
Taxpayers subsidize $66.24 for every round played at Green River Golf Course, the most egregious example of the financial challenges facing Utah State Parks.
A new legislative audit issued Tuesday recommends closing Green River as well as four other state parks Edge of the Cedars in Blanding, Territorial Statehouse in Fillmore, Frontier Homestead in Cedar City and Utah Field House Museum in Vernal. All have required heavy taxpayer subsidies for years.
Nearly one-third of Utah State Parks' revenue comes from Utah's general fund, and only nine of the 43 parks sustain themselves. The audit urges slashing subsidies by more than $6 million by 2014, recommending staff reductions, reduced hours and seasonal closures, among other cost-cutting measures.
Auditors, though, were less enthusiastic about privatizing any of the state parks, an idea some legislators floated a year ago.
While not dismissing the idea outright, the audit expressed doubt that doing so would actually save the state money. And it cited the fact it has been untried and unproven elsewhere.
Closing parks can be tricky for legislators, especially those in rural areas where money-losing parks bring visitors and enjoy wide political support.
In addition, 33 of the parks were either built with or involved land acquisition from the federal government, which likely would have to be reimbursed in some form if any of those parks were closed.
State parks draw 4.6 million people yearly, and not all are unprofitable. Bear Lake State Park, for example, took in $289,490 more than it cost to operate last year. Many are close to breaking even.
The state loses money on three of its four golf courses, with only Wasatch Mountain showing a profit.
That's particularly problematic at Soldier Hollow, which doesn't nearly have the traffic to meet a$1.1 million annual payment for bonds that funded a 36-hole layout.
The state's eight heritage parks are mostly big money losers Edge of the Cedars at $44.99 per visitor, for example.
Then there's This Is the Place Heritage Park, which is managed by a private nonprofit foundation and receives an annual general-fund subsidy of $800,000, considered part of Utah State Parks budget.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has recommended no reductions in the next parks' budget, and legislative fiscal analysts have yet to release their proposal.
Under pressure from the Legislature and anticipating the audit, Utah State Parks increased revenue in the past year by 3.4 percent, while cutting costs 2.3 percent.
State Parks Director Mary Tullius said audit suggestions to combine park operations in a geographic area and reduce hours in the offseason would be easy to implement.
Legislative auditors also recommended that Utah State Parks:
• Develop a more business-focused operation to improve park system efficiency.
• Reduce full-time staffing; downsize the number of law enforcement officers; consolidate park manager positions to enable one manager to oversee multiple parks; and use seasonal staffing instead of full-timers.
• Modify operations to reflect visitors' needs by reducing staffing and services during winter months and closing parks during less-visited seasons or days of the week.
In examining the possibility of privatizing operations, auditors suggested that state parks that charge user fees for recreational services such as access to campgrounds and marinas would be the best candidates.
The audit also suggested a model used by the U.S. Forest Service in which the agency retains ownership and is responsible for capital improvements but contracts with a private concessionaire to operate facilities.
In Arizona, municipalities helped support the cost of parks located in their areas.
A past round of park closures in Utah resulted in Fort Buenaventura being turned over to Ogden and Minersville Reservoir being given to Beaver County.
The report also questioned the need for trained law enforcement officers at parks where few citations are issued.
For example, Dead Horse Point State Park no longer employs any law enforcement rangers, instead relying on the county sheriff and other state officers.
Utah State Park revenue sources
Direct park revenues • 40 percent
General tax fund support • 31 percent
Boating registration and gas tax • 13 percent
Off-highway vehicle registration and gas tax • 11 percent
Federal and other grants • 5 percent
Source: Utah Office of the Legislative Auditor General Where State Park General Funds Are Spent
• Eight heritage parks: $2,186,800
• Twenty-eight recreation parks: $2,084,400
• Seven scenic parks: $1,208,100
• Four golf courses: $752,300
• Other park units (Boating law enforcement, wildlife management, snowmobile grooming): $681,100
• This Is The Place Foundation: $800,000
• Soldier Hollow Golf Course Bond Payment: $1,100,000
• Wasatch Mountain Golf Course Bond Payment: $371,400
• Total: $9.184,200
Source: Utah Legislative Auditor General
Western state park systems in trouble
Utah is not alone in facing state park closures and budget problems.
Arizona has closed two state parks, partially closed four other parks, transferred two historical parks to local management and reduced full-time equivalent employees from 230 to 210.
Idaho has increased fees and reduced services at state parks, and has made seasonal closures of some parks. Idaho is considering a plan that would require state parks to operate without General Fund support.
Colorado has raised park fees, reduced full-time positions, implemented unpaid furlough days for employees, reduced state retirement contributions for employees and reduced operating hours at some parks.
Washington has cut management and administrative staff by 25 percent. Managers grouped some parks into management areas where one manager oversees four parks and shares staff. The state is considering six more park closures, and looking at ways to reduce the number of park rangers.
Source: Utah Legislative Auditor General
Most profitableUtah State Parks
(Based on profit per visitor)
Dead Horse Point
Jordan River OHV
Source: Office of the Legislative Auditor General