State Parks High And Dry

August 12, 2005
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The Citizens for State Parks Committee is working on a plan to help Michigan’s state parks out of their $1.5 million to $2 million budget deficit resulting from the 2002 elimination of general funding.

“They are working with us to come up with a short-range budget solution as well as a long-range suitable budget funding mechanism,” said Ron Olson, chief of the Parks and Recreation Division for the State of Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “The short-range will be based on fee adjustments for the 2006 year.”

Some fees, such as the $2 reservation fee, do not cover the cost of service, Olson said.

“We’re running a deficit in our reservation system in and of itself,” he said.

While the fee is $2, the cost of the service is $2.40, so the parks are losing 40 cents when a reservation is made.

“We’re going to have to increase some of the fees in order to keep the services as they are,” he said.

Chuck Nelson, chairman of the Short-Term Financing Subcommittee of the Citizen’s Committee for Michigan State Parks, said raising reservation fees from $2 to $8 would bring the rate closer to that of surrounding states. Wisconsin’s fee is $9.50, Minnesota’s is $8.50 and Ohio’s is $8, while Ontario’s fee is $12 Canadian.

“The Michigan reservation program is less expensive to the consumer than any of the surrounding states,” Nelson said. “The reality is we were, I think, too generous.

“We were providing what I think is a valued resource and we’re not getting any recompense for it,” he said. “We have to be good stewards, and when we provide this computer reservation service we’re going to have to start charging for that service in a way that comparable systems do.”

The rates for overnight camping in state parks with 85 percent-plus reservations would be raised by $4 for 2006 if the Michigan Natural Resources Commission accepts the proposal. That would affect a third of the parks, including Muskegon, Holland, Grand Haven and P.J. Hoffmaster state parks.

A $5 registration fee is also proposed for drive-in and walk-in campers and the non-refundable cancellation fees would be raised from $5 to $10. There would be a $5 fee for campers who wish to transfer campsites while staying at the park, though campers who wish to extend their stay in the same site would not be charged an additional fee.

The fee adjustments are pending approval from the Michigan Natural Resources Commission, which will be meeting Aug. 11. Once the proposed fees are reviewed, a decision is expected at the Sept. 8 meeting.

“In the long term we need some more stable funding sources to support long-term maintenance and also to support a proactive view of management,” Nelson said.

The proactive management would help prevent problems within the park infrastructure and water and sewer systems.

“They’re the last people that can run a second-rate sewer operation,” he said.

“We need to begin to prioritize what are the infrastructure needs that are critical to protecting the environment and human health,” he said. “Make sure those things are not at risk of dying of old age.”

If the fees are not increased, the deficit will continue to grow.

“We calculate about a $4.5 million deficit (by 2007) if we don’t do something,” Olson said.

The rise in the deficit would be caused by the cost of salaries, health insurance and general inflation, Olson said.

“We have virtually no money to do certain capital improvements, let alone emergency repairs,” he said.

After raising fees, Olson said he hopes it will keep the state parks open and able to deal with minor emergency repair.

“Next year we should be able to keep the proverbial boat from leaking for now,” he said.

Though the fees will help, there also needs to be a long-term funding source to help support the aging infrastructure and systems of the parks. Nelson said the planning for a long-term sustainable funding source is in the preliminary stages.

The long-term capital improvements and infrastructure needs are pretty large, Olson said.

There could be $90 million spent in the next five years on high priority infrastructure, Olson said. There are some parks, such as Traverse City State Park, where the water and sewer systems, including the bathrooms, have not been changed since the 1950s.

“Needless to say, when people go there it’s kind of a grim experience for them, even though we’ve tried to keep them as clean as we can,” Olson said. “Major repairs and modernization and rebuilds are going to be very few and far between now.”

“The state parks are pretty much cut to the bone, as far as further cuts,” Nelson said. “There isn’t any give now.”

Olson said the parks have already made reductions such as the time frame that short-term workers are employed, reducing the 1,400 workers’ hours by a couple of weeks at the beginning of the season and at the end.

“That’s a significant savings,” he said.

There are also 30 positions left vacant and the duties taken over internally as rolling vacancies, Olson said.

“We’ve had some stress and strains, primarily around maintenance and a few areas we’ve been understaffed,” he said. “The other piece that’s suffered is the fact that we just don’t have money to be able to make high priority repairs. We’ve struggled with some of those and some things have been delayed that should have been addressed sooner.”

Nelson said there are other challenges state parks are facing besides aging infrastructure.

Parks like Holland State Park are easily accessible to walking visitors who do not pay a fee, causing the parks to lose revenue.

“It costs them for every person that comes in and there’s no revenue stream,” he said.

It was different when the parks had tax support and people were supporting the system that way, he said.

The state parks spend $1.74 per visitor, while the national average is $2.82. Michigan is the 49th-ranked state for receiving general funding and public support, while being ranked second in the nation for number of campers and ninth for visitors.

The Michigan State Parks are “one of the leaders in hosting and next to last in dollar support,” Olson said. “Those are some startling statistics. We’re able to meet the challenge, but as things break, it’s going to get harder and harder to sustain that.”

Of the state parks’ $54 million budget, $33 million is dedicated to the parks with the rest going to waterways, which have a sustainable funding system from gas taxes and boater registration.

“It’s managing the parks that is the most immediate challenge,” Olson said.

Despite monetary problems the parks are experiencing, Olson said it has not affected attendance.

Camping attendance is up 4 percent, while the daily and annual motor vehicle numbers are up about 10 percent. Revenue is up 15.7 percent with a fee increase, but Olson said there is still an increase of about 11 percent not considering the fee increase.

“The indicators we have are positive but a lot of that has to do with the weather,” he said. “We’re trying our best to make it palatable for our customers.”    

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