Billy Furlow has a secret and he feels guilty about it.
Back in August 2016, flooding began at Lake Fausse Pointe State Park, about 25 miles east of New Iberia. Water rose as high as the “Do Not Feed the Alligators” signs and covered miles of marked canoe routes through groves of giant cypress trees and hiking boardwalk trails through the swamps.
After evacuating the guests, Furlow fell back in his chair and hoped the park would be closed for a couple of weeks.
He needed the rest.
Furlow’s title is park manager. But with few employees left after years of budget cuts, Furlow had been working nonstop: balancing the books, changing the linens in the 18 cabins, cleaning the bathrooms for 17 RV hookups and 33 improved campsites, mowing the grass, picking up the trash, handling guest problems, and providing security. The work seemed endless.
His to-do list grew more onerous daily as park officials deferred maintenance and demanded more from fewer employees while they juggled to absorb annual budget cuts that now total about 60 percent of the appropriation a decade ago — from $29.7 million in 2008 to $19.7 million for the fiscal year that ends June 30.
It’s about to get worse.
The Office of State Parks is bracing for another 10 percent hit for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
If those shadows remain unaltered, “it would mean the closing of several sites, including parks and historic sites. It would translate to the elimination of 50 people, plus or minus,” says Robert Barham, the assistant secretary in charge of the Office of State Parks. “We are to a point now that for any substantial cuts, they would want me to give a list of what parks can you close, but instead, it’ll have to be a list of what parks can we keep open.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards plans to release an executive budget in January, which includes the 10 percent cut for parks and historic sites. The Louisiana Legislature will work off the governor’s proposal and make changes before approving a spending plan for state government. They’re doing so in the face of a more than $1 billion revenue shortfall.
Legislators and the governor have yet to agree on a plan for making up the deficit. Some demand more cuts to spending. Others argue for increasing revenue by eliminating tax breaks for businesses. Another group wants a combination of both.
“Parks will never match up with schools and sick children and it shouldn’t,” Barham said of budget prioritizing. “But providing public places for recreation, preserving our history and protecting our beautiful areas are all important too.”
Set in wooded swamps on the edge of lakes, Lake Fausse Pointe State Park gives people who can’t afford the cost of buying a private camp the chance to see bald eagles, foxes, maybe a black bear, in the wild.
Sixteen months post-flood, Lake Fausse Pointe still is pretty much closed and will remain so into the foreseeable future. Visitors can still rent a canoe or a launch a boat. But the hiking trails are closed, the floors of the cabins need to be replaced and something needs to be done about an electrical short that could electrocute campers. Insurance is covering most of those repairs – expected to cost about $200,000 – but the state won’t start seeking bids for the repair work until January.
Similarly, Bogue Chitto State Park near Franklinton and Tickfaw State Park near Springfield are open for some day use and some camping, but the cabins — big revenue generators — remain unusable.
Many of the state’s 19 historical sites are open “by appointment only” and others are open just a few days a week. Most of the 22 parks have parts that are closed because of maintenance concerns.
“It’s the whole infrastructure issue. We have roads that are deteriorating, rentable facilities that are deteriorating as the money dries up,” said Donna Hanney, who does the books for the parks system. “We have limited funds to do in-house projects, so the bigger projects get put off. It keeps getting worse and worse.”
About 70 percent of the money the state gives the parks system goes to pay salaries and benefits, making employees vulnerable to cuts. The parks have about 300 workers – 100 fewer than 10 years ago. Unlike some state agencies, which removed funded but unfilled jobs, the Office of State Parks had to hand out pink slips and send workers home unemployed.
Barham likens the financial situation to maintaining an automobile without enough money to change the tires.
“Well, we’ve got some places where we’re driving on slick tires,” Barham said. “We got some places that are not sparkling. So the public begins to complain and we try our best to respond to the needs, but you continue to accumulate needs.”
Deferred maintenance also presents a cascading effect that leads to other problems.
Chicot State Park near Ville Platte had to close a couple dozen campsites because a newer structure of toilets and showers had to be taken offline, leaving only a 40-year-old bathhouse. But maintenance had been delayed for so long that the old bathhouse became unsafe and had to be closed, meaning the campsites in that loop couldn’t be used. Campsites at Chicot run about $25 per night — cabins go for up to $175 — so the revenue losses are not of the magnitude at Fausse Pointe, Bogue Chitto and Tickfaw, but the money is still needed.
Barham interrupted an interview last week to field a call from Poverty Point World Heritage Site. UNESCO puts the prehistoric monument in isolated northeast Louisiana in the same league as England’s Stonehenge and China’s Great Wall.
The electricity to a dormitory abruptly went out, leaving a team of archeologists from Minnesota without heat during a cold snap. “I told them I want to them to feel at home,” Barham joked.
He had dispatched members of the traveling fix-it team – parks no longer station a maintenance person at each facility. The team reported it had found the cause and an electrician was starting to repair a broken router.
Visibly relieved, Barham acknowledged his chest gets tight whenever the phone rings.
He recalled a recent sewer leak at Fontainebleau State Park on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain near Mandeville. He feared the system had failed. “If it had been a system collapse, we don’t have the money to fix it and that would have closed Fontainebleau,” he said. Fontainebleau is the most visited park, collecting $1.3 million in fees and rentals during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2016.
Luckily it was only a broken joint in the aging system and that could be replaced.
State general fund dollars pay administrative costs. Repairs and maintenance come from collections of fees and overnight rentals at each park and is directed into a statutorily dedicated fund. The Jindal administration changed the rules to allow that money to be used for operating expenses, then lowered the amount of funds the state provided. Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser estimated in a speech last week that about $54 million had been “swept from state parks” in this way during the past eight years.
State Parks is given “budget authority” to spend the money in its statutorily dedicated fund, but it first must raise the dollars. That proves difficult when parks and historic sites are taken offline, said H. Brandon Burris, deputy assistant secretary.
The three major parks that remain closed in some fashion translates to about 20 percent of the parks revenues, he added.
Cabins, canoe rentals and campsites made Lake Fausse Pointe the system’s fifth-highest revenue producer – it’s one of two parks that covered expenses and made a small profit – collecting $589,671 for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016. Last year, of course, the park was mostly closed.
All that comes into play as officials analyze which, if any, state parks and historic sites will be closed, Burris said. Factors, such as potential for revenues, constantly change.
For instance, at the top of a possible closure list had been Chemin-A-Haut State Park near Bastrop. Some of its cabins were damaged in the March 2016 flood and it was the least visited park in the system. But a longtime project to refurbish the swimming pool was completed in time for a summer 2017.
“Visitation is up because of that pool. So, it’s a very fluid process,” he said.
Lawyers also will have to get involved before any closure decisions are made. Many of the properties include clauses that give the property back to the donors if the park closes.
The original owners of the 948-acre recreation area that became Hodges Gardens State Park exercised their contractual option in August to take back one of the nation’s largest botanical gardens. They did so because the state couldn’t afford to properly maintain the facility.
Louisiana is getting rid of a state park, and officials blame a legacy of budget cuts.
Louisiana is not the only state that has been cutting the budgets of its parks. California, Wyoming, Wisconsin and West Virginia have been struggling to keep up with maintenance and have been laying off workers. Alabama closed five state parks in 2016, though several reopened.
Connecticut looked at taxing plastic grocery bags and Texas debated carving out a portion of the sales taxes on sporting goods to raise money for parks. Eighteen states offer vanity plates.
Nungesser told a northwest Louisiana luncheon audience that he’s looking for the state to partner with private companies to bolster the park system, according to an article published Thursday by the Bossier Press-Tribune. For instance, a resort conference center could be built by a private company on state-owned property next to Fontainebleau.
Chris R. Nolen, who is president of a volunteer group that supported Hodges, doesn’t think privatizing is good idea.
“Whenever they talked about Hodges, they talked about selling rides on zip lines and so forth. But that’s not why you go to state parks,” she said. “It’s about having canoes and hiking and seeing nature up close.”