HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Recent state budget cuts should encourage the General Assembly to think creatively about funding the 109 state parks, as the reality of fewer lifeguards, taller grass and messier restrooms sets in this summer, a key Connecticut lawmaker says.
In recent years, several money-generating ideas for the parks failed in the legislature, including a 5-cent fee on plastic bags; expansion of the state’s 5-cent bottle deposit program to include sports drinks, teas, juices, wine and liquor; and a $5 “donation” added to motor vehicle registrations.
State Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr., a Democrat from Branford and co-chairman of the legislature’s Environment Committee, said he hopes the park cutbacks and the economic ramifications will encourage lawmakers to reconsider those concepts or others when they return to Hartford next year.
“I think right now, people are finally realizing the ramifications of these cuts to state parks,” Kennedy said. “It’s time to have a debate and discussion and put all of these ideas on the table.”
The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection recently announced $1.8 million in reductions to park operations. Besides cutbacks in maintenance and lifeguard staffing, the agency’s plan called for closing three state campgrounds and changing hours at certain locations. Commissioner Robert Klee said he expects additional cost-cutting measures next spring as his agency faces an overall $10 million cut in funding from the state’s general fund.
Unlike most states, Connecticut’s parks are financed entirely through the general fund, the state’s main spending account. It costs about $18 million to operate the parks each year. Approximately a third of that cost is made up from revenue generated at the parks, including entrance fees, which is automatically deposited into the general fund.
That wasn’t the case prior to 2009. Tom Tyler, the state’s director of state parks, said the parks survived for decades on revenue raised from various fees deposited into an environmental conservation fund, as well as some money from the state’s general fund. But he said revenues generated from fees became static. A couple of weekends of bad weather could really hurt revenues.
Faced with a difficult budget year, the legislature swept the fund for other uses and covered park expenses with only general fund revenues. Some believed the parks would then have a reliable, steady stream of revenue.
Pam Adams, who retired in 2009 as the state parks director and now heads the Friends of Connecticut State Parks organization, said the idea worked for a little while until state revenues worsened.
“The state parks started to suffer. We’ve been on sort of a downslide ever since,” she said, adding how staffing is at a long-time low. “If they have to take any more reductions, you’re going to have to start going after full closures of facilities.”
Adams agrees with Kennedy that state officials need to think creatively about increasing park revenues to augment the general fund money.
The environmental protection department is providing the legislature with a report this fall about private interest in expanding different types of concessions. That report will also examine whether fees should be changed from per vehicle to per person. Other proposals under consideration include charging a nominal fee for senior citizens, who currently receive free admission, and increasing rental fees.
Kennedy said he’d like lawmakers to review how other states handle park funding and marketing.
“This is not something that’s unique to Connecticut,” he said, adding how the state needs a “fundamental change in how we view these assets.”
July 17, 2016 Updated: July 17, 2016 8:58am