Alabama State Parks working on contingency plan to close 15 parks, including some in north Alabama

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WHNT) - Budget cuts in Alabama are affecting many departments. As state legislators battle it out in Montgomery, state departments are warning employees of major cuts if the money doesn't come.

The latest potential victim is Alabama State Parks.  WHNT News 19 spoke with Kim Nix, spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, on Tuesday.  Nix confirmed if legislators take funding away, there will be an emergency plan implemented to close a number of parks in the next year.

"What they proposed is going to be devastating," said Nix.

WHNT News 19 contacted Alabama State Parks Director Greg Lein for further information.  He said the 15 parks that would close by FY2016 are Bladon Springs, Chickasaw, Bucks Pocket, Paul Grist, Florala, Blue Springs, Roland Cooper, Rickwood Caverns, Cheaha Park, Lake Lurleen, DeSoto, Lakepoint, Guntersville, Joe Wheeler and Frank Jackson.

Lein said the seven parks that would remain open are Meaher, Wind Creek, Chewacla, Monte Sano, Cathedral Caverns, Oak Mountain and Gulf State Park.

"Those 15 parks [slated to close] have not consistently made a profit over the last three years," said Lein.  "The remaining seven parks have.  This is a very dynamic financial situation."

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What happens for now?

Four parks are slated to close on May 1, 2015 if funding doesn't come.  These are Bladon Springs, Chickasaw, Buck's Pocket and Paul Grist State Park.  Two additional golf courses will also close May 1 -- these are located at Roland Cooper and Lakepoint.

On June 1, 2015, the state will put an emergency plan in place for five other smaller, rural parks.  These are Frank Jackson, Rickwood Caverns, Roland Cooper, Blue Springs and Florala. These parks will re-evaluate staff and operational costs and try to improve their financial situation.

Director Lein said he would like to keep the remaining parks open. These include Guntersville, Joe Wheeler, DeSoto, Lake Lurleen and Cheaha.  In Guntersville's case, Lein said it has only been in the red, financially, since major tornado damage a few years ago.  Prior to that, the park was making a profit.

However, if the drastic budget cuts remain in place, the state may have to close these parks.

Economic development officials in Marshall and DeKalb Counties, where three of the parks affected are located, say the potential closures will have a substantial economic impact on the respective areas. They say the closures will also affect several jobs in those counties. Marshall County economic development officials say they use the Lake Guntersville State Park as a tool for business recruitment. Officials from both counties say the both DeSoto and Lake Guntersville State Parks are have a big tourism draw to the area.

How did all of this come about?

Lein said a big component of this is that Governor Bentley's budget plan calls for unearmarking funds.  Those funds paid certain operational costs for Alabama State Parks, approximately $7 million, covering expenses such as staff pay and maintenance.

The remaining money at risk, approximately $2.8 million, is money the park system made from user fees.  Alabama State Parks have a user pay system -- fees collected from parking, camping, gift shops and other activities help fund the parks.  The proposed state budget would take these fees and use them for other state expenses.

Director Lein's Statement:

"Recently we were notified of the legislatures' intent to transfer $11.4 million of funds from the 2016 Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) budget. 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.

The Governor has been working to address this chronic funding crisis of state government through a proposal to raise necessary funds. 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 our parks, or the plan proposed by the Governor. Please discuss this among your peers, family and local elected officials.”

Supporters

Meanwhile, supporters of Alabama State Parks have created a Facebook page, Alabama State Parks Partners, urging people to join the effort to protect state parks. Supporters also plan to post updates about the parks and time-sensitive issues involving the legislature.

Legislator reaction

WHNT News 19 contacted State Senator Arthur Orr about these potential cuts.  He said there is no budget agreement yet.  In the state's current financial state, without any additional revenue, he said there would be about a 15 percent cut to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which is over Alabama State Parks.  He said how the Department chose to manage that loss is up to Department's discretion.

WHNT News 19 also spoke with State Senator Clay Scofield on Wednesday.

"I am meeting with the Governor tomorrow to discuss a solution. I have a workable plan, but I need the Governor's help to implement it," Sen. Scofield said.

Will Ainsworth, House District 27 Representative, said in a statement, “The legislative session has not reached its halfway point, and the new fiscal year does not begin until October, so I am concerned that Director Lein’s letter is merely an unnecessary scare tactic that is attempting to build support for Gov. Bentley’s $541 million tax plan. In the coming days, I will propose a plan that I believe can help balance the General Fund budget without breaking the ‘no new taxes’ pledge that many of my fellow lawmakers and I made to the citizens of Alabama.”

A spokeswoman from Governor Bentley's Office said the letter wasn't a scare tactic, but reality if the budget spreadsheet passed out to legislators weeks ago is passed.

What can you do?

Do you have an opinion about this? Do you think it's just political posturing? Contact your legislators. On that link, you can enter your address and pull up your State Representative, State Senator, as well as higher office holders. There is also a link to contact Governor Bentley.

We also invite you to post your comments in our WHNT News 19 Facebook post.

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