Monday, July 11, 2016

Reiboldt: More transparency needed in our state parks management

(From Rep. Bill Reiboldt, R-Seneca)

Missouri’s state parks system is celebrating 100 years of service to our state. Throughout their history they have sought to protect Missouri’s natural resources while providing recreational opportunities to our state’s citizens. As the park system has grown, public support and interest has grown as well.

Several important dates in the history of the park system are as follows:

1917 - State Parks Fund officially created; revenues come from the old

Missouri Fish and Game Dept.

1937 - creation of the MO State Park Board

1945 - drafters of the new MO Constitution establish a mill tax to help fund state

parks (approved by voters when they approved the new state constitution)

1974 - park system re-organizes under the newly formed MO Dept. of Natural

Resources (DNR).

1984 - park system grows and needs a permanent source of funding; voters approve a

state sales tax of 1/10 of 1 cent, with 1/2 going to Missouri State Parks and the other half going to MO Soil and Water Conservation Program.

Since voter approval of the 1/10 of a cent sales tax, adequate funding has been provided for both the state parks and the soil and water program. Renewed in 1988, 1996, and 2006, the sales tax will be up for renewal again this November. Since 1996, the tax is on a ten year sunset. It generates approximately $78 million annually and cannot be re-appropriated for any other purposes. Our state parks receive roughly 75% of their funding from the parks portion of this tax and about 25% comes from grants, user fees, and federal funds. Today, we have 53 state parks and 34 historic sites that cover roughly 200,000 acres. Both the Missouri parks system and the soil and water districts are under the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

All of the above sounds good, so why has the park system left such a sour taste with Missouri lawmakers? Maybe the best answer concerns two projects done under a shroud of secrecy: the new state of the art Echo Bluff State Park and the beginning of the Oregon County State Park. These projects are being discussed extensively in our Appropriations Committee hearing this summer.

Echo Bluff State Park, formerly known as Camp Zoe (near Eminence, MO) is nearly ready for its grand opening around the first part of August. From the very beginning of this project, there have been questions. No approval or consent from the legislature was given before the project started. At that time, the legislature was told the cost would be $32 million to complete it. What wasn’t mentioned, though, was that $17 million of the money came from a court settlement involving Ameren over the Taum Sauk Mountain incident. Today, the cost has doubled to about $63 million for the project. Furthermore, the Echo Bluff management group used an out-of-state contractor, rather than one from Missouri.

The new Oregon State Park project used $8 million from a court settlement with the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) to purchase land. The money was to be used for restoration and remediation of the lead belt region of Missouri. The big problem is, however, there was never any lead mined in the park project area. The initial purchase of 2,500 areas was to be followed by a second purchase of 2,200 acres and then by a third purchase of 6,000 acres.

In testimony before a House committee, Parks Director, Bill Bryan, testified that the parks system is about $500 million behind on deferred maintenance costs. Our question: Why are we buying more land and how are we to pay for it when we are already so very, very far behind on costs as it is? And while it was determined that the Governor’s actions were not illegal, in the opinion of many, they were certainly unethical and a misuse of public money. Even with the controversy, members of the General Assembly are very much supportive of the 1/10 cent sales tax, but are only asking for more transparency and openness from the DNR.

Overall, we feel there is no doubt our state parks are some of our state’s finest treasures.They are very much enjoyed, appreciated and supported by tens of thousands of people annually, and we want to see them continued to be maintained and improved. On the other hand, we also want greater transparency from those who have the oversight and control of these parks, and we want dealings to be open, fair, and above question.

One hundred years of fishing, hiking, camping, and other outdoor recreational and educational fun for park visitors! Happy birthday, Missouri State Parks, and here’s to the next 100 years.

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