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LA parks must balance revenues, public needs

As Louisiana looks to create a more fiscally-sound budget, a welcome review of the scope and role of state parks should bring focus to policy options that fulfill appropriately the function of government yet do not forget the public service aspect.

With state revenues having difficulty in keeping up with spending, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser and officials dealing with parks, part of his portfolio as the state’s second-ranked executive, have investigated a number of ideas to draw in more and more stable receipts to fund Louisiana’s 32 parks and historic sites. Among others things, hikes in entry fees and rentals and awarding naming rights have come under study.

To save money, Nungesser’s predecessor, now Commissioner of Administration, Jay Dardenne removed personnel from lightly-visited historical sites, mostly war-related, but no parks have closed for fiscal reasons. In fact, from fiscal year 2008, parks have seen their budget increase from $33 million to $35 million, so the expenditure side has driven the monetary pinch that parks now experience.

Naming rights increasingly have become popular for parks in general, with earlier this year the National Parks Service declaring that corporate logos of donors could appear on temporary signage, vehicles, and buildings, among other things. NPS also has a foundation to help with funding, an idea Nungesser is exploring.

Certainly the fee structure needs scrutiny. That the recently-reopened cabins at Fountainebleau State Park regularly stay oversubscribed for a year indicates the state prices them too low; the purpose of parks is to make available a resource primarily for the enjoyment of state citizens of any means, not to underprice extra amenities in competition with the private sector. It’s appropriate for taxpayers to subsidize entry fees and rentals of pavilions at the like at Fountainebleau so that even families of modest means can enjoy these facilities, but offering cabins at $150 a night so far below market pricing that the park as a whole only made 62 cents on the dollar is not.

Thus, the state definitely should raise prices on these kinds of offerings that mimic private sector offerings, and perhaps on those recreational items not typically duplicated so that they don’t grossly rent or admit below actual cost. It also should review the need for each park and what unique attributes it provides, setting aside extraneous considerations. For example, Hodges Garden State Park entered the system a decade ago through political machinations, and Rebel State Historical Site, given its rare use as a public park and its typical use as a showcase for local music with programs put on by outside organizations, might not fit the mission of state parks. The state should divest itself of any locations that seem to serve interests other than entirely the public-spirited.

Louisiana must strike a better balance among costs relative to revenues in running parks, between the appropriate level of public goods subsidized and genuine need. Rethinking both sides of the ledger should culminate in more efficient service provision.

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