Budget cuts threaten 2 local parks

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 17, 2015

Lake Frank Jackson is under threat of being closed because of budget cuts. | Josh Dutton/Star-News

Lake Frank Jackson is under threat of being closed because of budget cuts. | Josh Dutton/Star-News

State budget cuts are threatening two state parks in Covington County, and the county’s representatives in the state legislature agreed Thursday that threats are very real.

Frank Jackson State Park and Florala State Park are on a list of 15 parks that could close if legislators pass a proposed general fund budget that cuts funding to most state agencies.

Seven parks will remain open, including Meaher, Wind Creek, Chewacla, Monte Sano, Cathedral Caverns, Oak Mountain and Gulf State Park.

The 15 parks in question have not consistently made a profit over the last three years, according to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

If additional funding doesn’t come, four parks are scheduled to close on May 1.

On June 1, Frank Jackson and Florala, along with three other rural parks, will put into place an emergency plan to reassess operational costs and staffing to try and improve finances.

“Recently we were notified of the legislature’s intent to transfer $11.4 million of funds from the 2016 Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) budget,” Alabama State Parks Director Greg Lein said. “The majority of these funds are to be transferred from ADCNR ($10.4 million) would come from the state parks system. In anticipation of this loss in revenue, on May 1, 2015, we will implement an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) that closes several of our parks and park operations across the state. On June 1, 2015, we will implement a second EOP that will reduce the staffing and operational hours of several other parks. These dramatic changes will no doubt have a direct impact to their local communities and ultimately hurt our state’s economy.

In his statement, Lein encouraged lawmakers to support a tax package proposed by Gov. Robert Bentley to shore up the General Fund budget.

“The governor has been working to address this chronic funding crisis of state government through a proposal to raise necessary funds,” Lein said. “We encourage each of you to think about the two options being considered; the cuts and transfers proposed by the legislature that would close more than half of our parks, or the plan proposed by the governor.”

Opp Mayor John Bartholomew said Frank Jackson is an important part of the Opp community, and the local economy.

“Losing this park would be like losing an industry,” he said. “People who stay at Frank Jackson spend money at our grocery stores, gas stations, buy fishing equipment, eat at our restaurants and just enjoy our city. This is very important to our city.”

Bartholomew said he was very disappointed that Frank Jackson was on the list.

“Due to the fact that we made a profit last year, I was disappointed,” he said. “The Trailmasters put in a lot of hard work and dedication to make the park a success.”

Bartholomew said he hopes and prays that the governor gets his taxes passed.

Trailmasters President Charles Willis said he would like to point out to the state and the public that the group puts in a tremendous amount of work for the state park each year.

“We do thousands of hours of work free of charge,” he said. “No other state park has this. We have enabled the park to operate in the black. Almost any job, the park provides the materials and we provide the labor.”

Throughout the last few years, the Trailmasters have worked to install new playground equipment at the park, built bridges, reworked bridges and kept the trails maintained.

“The state doesn’t have to spend money on that at all,” he said. “Our fall event, Scarecrows in the Park, brings a lot of people to the park. There is so much done by local people. We feel that Frank Jackson should be kept open.”

Bartholomew encouraged local residents to contact Rep. Mike Jones and Sen. Jimmy Holley.

Sen. Holley said Thursday that the parks are great assets, but the funding crisis is real.

“We’ve got to have a balanced budget,” he said. “The Constitution says we can only spend that which is collected. We have to determine what that will be and allocate resources accordingly.”

Bentley has proposed a $700 million revenue package that has found little support in the legislature.

Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, said Thursday that he and Sen. Holley have been on the front lines fighting for state parks for a long time.

“One thing that helps is that (Frank Jackson Park) is now operating in the green,” Jones said. “I understand the mechanism they are using in these considerations is a three-year period of time. My argument is we now have things in place there that bring in more revenue.”

Jones echoed Holley’s sentiments.

“The revenue shortfall is very real,” he said. “But we are in the very early stages of this and I think we will get a lot done, further down the road.”

Both Holley and Jones said the funding crisis would also affect all other agencies in the general fund, including Medicaid, the state health department, prisons, mental health, and Alabama State Troopers.