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From the Pen of Robert L. Cook

We recently completed the painful process of laying off 39 good, hard-working state park employees, closing several camping loops and reducing the number of days and hours that our state parks and historic sites are open because we do not have enough money to operate and maintain our state’s wonderful state parks — nor to provide for the safety and needs of our park visitors. It wasn’t fun. In addition, we eliminated another 40 state park positions that we have been holding vacant. Your state parks need all of those employees and much more.

Don’t bother trying to find someone to blame; I know exactly who is to blame. Some folks will blame the Texas Legislature; not me. I have participated in the legislative process for 15 years, and our legislators have far more demands and requests for funding than they have funds to allocate. Legislators know how important the state park or historic site in their district is to the economy of the local communities.

Some folks will say we just cut out the fluff; that we were wasting money anyway. They are wrong. They do not visit our state parks and historic sites and see how hard our folks work and what a great job they do with so little. The truth is we are all to blame. That’s right — me, you and every Texan must wake up and realize that we need to adequately fund our incredible state park system.

Currently the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department operates 124 state park units and historic sites in Texas. For the last five years, our operating budget, the money that pays the utility bills, patches the roof and pays park employee salaries, has been “flat” or slightly declining at around $51 million dollars per year. Sounds like a lot, right? Do the math — that’s less than a half million dollars per site per year. Considering that our parks take in about $32 million per year in gate fees and facilities use fees (cabins, RV hookups, etc.), “your taxpayer cost” drops to about $170,000 per park, per year; or one penny per Texan per year! The great State of Texas ranks 48th or 49th in state park funding per citizen! I’m sorry, but it just isn’t good enough to be next to last.

Surveys indicate that two-thirds of Texas taxpayers are willing to pay more taxes to have more, better and bigger state parks. In fact, most of us do not consider adequately funding our parks as a “cost” or a “liability.” Independent studies have documented that investments in parks for our citizens to use and enjoy actually reduce the overall tax spending on delinquency and crime.

OK … Bottom line, how much money do we need above and beyond the $51 million that we have now to operate our current system with no expansion or additional parks? First, we need an additional $12 million per year to effectively staff and maintain our current system of state parks and historic sites. Second, in addition to the $7 million per year that we are currently spending to fund major repair projects in our state parks, we need an additional $10 million per year to get these sites in good shape and keep them that way. Have you ever operated a 26-mile long steam train, or tried to keep a 100-year-old dreadnought class battleship afloat, or replaced a water/wastewater system like the one at Garner State Park that services 200,000 visitors annually? Finally, we need an additional $5 million per year for replacement mowers, tractors, garbage trucks, pickup trucks and putt-putt-type vehicles. That totals an additional $27 million per year!

You could think of it like this; that’s less than $2 per Texan, per year. Let’s solve this issue!

Sign me up. Get outdoors.

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