The Grand Isle State Park was moments from being closed in late June. Now, it’s getting a $6.1 million facelift.
Such is the serendipity of state budget drafting in Louisiana, particularly for spending that is low on the priority list.
Just as it appeared the end was near, legislators and the Edwards administration agreed on a funding mechanism that ended the budget impasse and gave the parks $6 million more. Six weeks later, recovery money from the Deepwater Horizon disaster became available.
State parks received an additional $16.2 million to renovate cabins and restrooms, repair jetties, and, in Grand Isle’s case, expand a pier 400 feet into the Gulf of Mexico.
Last week, contractors were making the repairs to open two parks by Oct. 22 — Lake Fausse Pointe near St. Martinville and Tickfaw in the Florida Parishes. They have been closed since the August 2016 flood.
But it was a close-run thing, said Gene Reynolds, the new manager of the state’s 21 parks and 19 historic sites. His shoulders visibly shuddered as he talked about the crucial June 22 vote in the Louisiana House just 18 days after assuming his new job. The previous parks chief retired midway through the legislative session.
The budget that Gov. John Bel Edwards had already signed was cutting the state’s appropriation to parks by 24.2 percent on July 1. More state revenues were needed.
“All the plans were to start shutting things down, and really, that was what I was preparing for up until the final vote,” Reynolds said.
Half of the parks and all the historical sites would be closed. Half his employees — 102 out of 199 — would receive pink slips. The rest of the staff would be shuffled around to whatever he could keep open.
There were legal considerations and a question of regional balance, but basically the decision on what parks would be closed was based on how much money they cost. Only two pay for themselves, Fontainebleu near Mandeville and Palmetto Island near Abbeville. The rest operate at a deficit, meaning state taxpayers kick in to keep them open.
The 68,435 visitors to Grand Isle in 2017 paid $104,388 less than the beachside park cost to operate. And the Chicot, the granddaddy of the state park system, needed $412,363 more despite attracting 130,580 visitors in 2017.
Flooding in 2016 caused the closure of four of the more lucrative parks, cutting into revenues by about $8 million, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser testified June 20 before the House Appropriations Committee.
House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, was sympathetic. “We ask you to be entrepreneurial, and you have been creating money-making programs. We undercut you by saying we appreciate all the work you’ve done, but we’re not going to reward you,” he said.
So, it all came down to one vote on a last-minute compromise forwarded by a cadre of Republican freshman House members led by Rep. Paula Davis, of Baton Rouge. The fifth penny of the state’s 5-cent sales tax was set to expire and blow a $500 million to $1 billion hole in revenues. Democrats and Edwards wanted to keep 50 percent of the expiring penny. Republicans wanted 40 percent. Neither side budged. They couldn’t even agree on the size of the deficit.
The compromise split the difference and set the sales tax rate at 4.45 cents on every dollar purchased, which added $466 million in revenues, about $6 million more for the state park system. That brought the state general fund appropriation up to about $38 million — about $800,000 less than needed but enough to avoid the closure/layoff plan.
The compromise needed 70 votes to pass.
Reynolds wasn’t optimistic.
Having taken over from Edwards as the House Democratic minority leader and representing a northwest Louisiana House district around Minden until June 4, Reynolds had seen dozens of deals fall apart. He knew enough about his former colleagues to know that if the vote was less than 70, his parks would be at the end of the list of services to receive money.
Democratic Rep. Sam Jones, an ally from Franklin, agreed. If the vote failed, the only two options were to let the budget go into effect eight days later or accept less revenues, which would have set lawmakers to picking and choosing services to receive additional funds.
The politically popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students college grants and supplemental pay for law enforcement were but two of the many programs that rank above easy access to Louisiana’s natural settings.
“If you have to pick between one of the critical services and state parks, which would you choose?” asked Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath.
He was one of the legislators who argued the state’s economic health has been hurt by too much taxation. Lower taxes would stimulate growth and attract more businesses to the state. That’s why he, and a significant number of House Republicans said the compromise was more of a capitulation.
But the compromise passed on a vote of 74 to 24.
Reynolds said he walked away relieved at not having to lay off people.
The July 17 announcement of money from the Deepwater Horizon settlement was lagniappe, Reynolds said.
The money was earmarked for recreation and the parks received $16.2 million. The money is part of billions that BP agreed to pay Louisiana and other Gulf states affected by the April 2010 oil spill.
Five parks received money to build enhancements. Cypremort Point State Park in St. Mary Parish started work Wednesday on shoreline protection and beach improvements. St. Bernard State Park near Caernarvon is renovating restrooms.
The combination of BP money and the state appropriation has allowed for long-delayed repairs. Chicot is working on a bath house. Tickfaw, which closed because of flooding, is fixing up its cabins and trails for the Oct. 22 opening, as is Lake Fausse Pointe.
Billy Furlow, who manages Lake Fausse Pointe State Park, hasn’t been paying attention to all the financial machinations in Baton Rouge.
The park has been closed since it flooded with chest-high water in August 2016. For the much of that time, Furlow has been by himself on the 6,000 acres adjacent to the Atchafalaya Basin. His only visitors seemed to be poachers who had to be chased away.
“It’s not as a big a problem now. We’ve got a lot more people on the property,” he said while walking up a reconstructed plank walkway to a campground bathhouse where contractors worked on plumbing and electricity. Tiles have been replaced and toilets sat on the floor ready to be installed.
“I didn’t know this (park) was out here until I arrived here to work,” said Christian Rentrop, a contractor from Morgan City who has spent lunch hours walking on some of the trails and plans to bring his family back.
An electrical problem, which would have electrocuted anyone standing in the wrong spot, has been fixed. A ruptured tank has been replaced and now the splash pad is fully operational.
Though insurance and flood restoration grants pay for much of the work, they don’t cover everything, and repairs that would have taken six to eight weeks if the parks were fully funded have lingered for almost two years.
Until recently, repairs at the state parks had a DIY aspect, Furlow said. He’d do what he could. Occasionally, another park would send some personnel over for a day or two to replace boards. Administrative staff drove in from Baton Rouge to paint.
They removed the planks from the picnic tables, kept the metal frame and installed new planks.
Eight of the cabins now have new furniture and appliances.
The only real issue is interior design. Furlow prefers to put one of the end tables next to the chair. His staff argues that the end tables should be on either side of the couch.
“I’ve been outvoted,” he said.
The state is taking reservations and 21 nights already have been booked for the month starting Oct. 22. The cabins cost $150 during the week, $175 on the weekend.
Prior to the flood, Lake Fausse Pointe’s cabins generated several hundred thousand dollars a year for the state. The cabins had to be reserved long in advance — about a year for holiday periods. This is one of the parks that made money.
Another group of cabins that sit over a cove were more heavily damaged and repairs will take more time. And the three trails will not be fully opened until the boardwalks are repaired.
Deer, black bears, bald eagles and other wildlife, which had been seen all over the park, haven’t returned, possibly because of the poachers, but they will, Furlow said.
“It won’t be fully open. But there’ll be a lot here, and anything is better than nothing,” Furlow said.
State Park Projects paid for with $16.2 million in Deepwater Horizons settlement monies
Grand Isle State Park: $6.1 million to include a pier expansion
Sam Houston Jones State Park: $2.4 million to include 10 new cabins
St. Bernard State Park: $1 million to include three restrooms
Bayou Segnette State Park: $2.1 million to include road repairs
Cypremort Point State Park: $4.5 million to include shoreline protections
Source: Office of State Parks