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Pitfalls to Privatizing Parks?

December 8, 2010

PHOENIX - Some of Arizona's state parks could be privatized under a recommendation expected from a state cost-cutting commission. But park system advocates warn such a move could actually raise costs while reducing services.

Arizona State Parks Foundation Director Cristie Statler worries that private-sector companies will try to cherry-pick the parks that produce revenue, while neglecting those that receive fewer visitors. Statler says taxpayers have invested too much in state parks over the years to let that happen.

"I have no interest in letting my investment just go to somebody so they can line the pockets of shareholders."

She says she has no problem contracting for services with private concessionaires, providing that those contracts produce maximum revenue for the parks system. The governor and lawmakers are scrambling to find ways to cover a projected billion-dollar state budget deficit for the coming year.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter, says contracting out maintenance for campgrounds and restrooms may sound like it would save the state money – but she is quick to point out that current state parks workers handle more than maintenance.

"People who do that in many of the parks also provide law enforcement. They may be EMTs; they help with educational efforts."

If the parks could boost concession revenues, and if lawmakers would stop raiding funding sources like the State Lake Improvement Fund, the Off-Highway Vehicle Fund and Growing Smarter money, Statler is convinced the system could break even.

"These are the pieces of the pie that has been cobbled together, along with the fees at the gate, that keep the state park system operating."

Selling state parks won't save money, adds Statler, because most have deed restrictions requiring removal of improvements or reimbursement if the land is sold or the lease is terminated.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ