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LA state parks must become more self-sustaining

Another year, another set of budgetary difficulties for Louisiana’s state parks and historic sites. But, rather than depending upon taxpayers, policy-makers could help themselves out on this issue.

The Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism has braced itself for more budget cuts to parks in fiscal year 2019. This has led to shorter operational hours (and some sites open only by appointment) and deferred maintenance at the 22 parks and 19 historic sites. Already, parts of many stay closed, and some amenities that generate revenue have fallen into disrepair, creating a vicious cycle where the agency finds it harder to raise money to fix these things.

Yet, to some degree, CRT officials and lawmakers bear the blame for such problems by promoting an inefficient model. In 2012, the Legislative Auditor released a report that included suggestions on better running the operation. Five years later, at best only lukewarm implementation of these has occurred.

Then, the auditor suggested better matching resources to utilization, pricing demand for services better, putting more money into maintenance, and sharing staffing wherever possible. It contrasted the revenue situation of Louisiana with Alabama, where funds gathered from operations covered 97 percent of the Yellowhammer State’s parks and historic site expenditures.

Now, Alabama has 21 state parks and seven historic sites, compared to Louisiana’s 22 parks and 19 historic sites – an increase of one total despite the budgetary crunch and with the removal of the former Hodges State Park from the system this year. Of the two kinds, historic sites cost much higher per visitor. And, for FY 2018 Louisiana has taxpayers foot directly over 58 percent of costs, with dedicated funds accounting for 31 percent and self-generated revenues form other sources just 3.7 percent. Remarkably, the amount of budgeted self-generated revenues has fallen only around $100,000 since FY 2011, the data used for the audit, and the overall budget has dropped about $1.6 million or five percent.

Part of the problem comes from having too many locations, with many relatively lightly visited. Using 2011 data, some parks average perhaps 10 visitors a day, although few are geographically close to each other. Some historic sites do cluster, and while the most lightly visited open now only by appointment, for those open five days a week some attract as few as just over 20 visitors a day.

However, fee structures remain largely undifferentiated and likely underprice the market for the more upscale amenities, as indicated by extraordinarily long waiting lists that don’t discriminate between residents and out-of-state travelers. Nor, contrary to the auditor’s recommendation, do parks collect fees on extras like pool use. And resource sharing appears unplanned, happening in the breach as attrition occurs.

While, like all other state agencies, the Office of State Parks has a strategic plan, twice the state has fashioned master plans for it, the last having expired in 2012. Perhaps the time has come to produce another that focuses on implementing the audit’s recommendations more fully.

There’s no reason policy implementation and changes to it can’t draw Louisiana’s parks and historic sites closer to self-sustenance. Rather than ask for larger taxpayer handouts or let matters deteriorate further, the state should pursue this strategy.

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