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05-05-03: Local group wants to fight park budget cuts
The Daily Standard
    The latest proposal for state budget cuts in fiscal year 2004-2005 could be the worst yet for the Division of Parks and Recreation, said Division Chief Dan West this morning.
    Locally, Lake Improvement Association President Bill Ringo reported at Saturday's LIA meeting that he is trying to form a grassroots organization of people to lobby against the cuts before Senate members in Columbus possibly later this month. The LIA is a nonprofit organization that helps with improvements around the lake.
    West said the state's fiscal year 2004-2005 biennium budget has been passed by the House and remains in the Senate. The budget may go back to a joint House/Senate conference committee later this month or early in June.
    "If the budget is passed as it is now, we will certainly see more reduced services and more closed areas of state parks and more seasonalization of our state parks in lesser used areas," West said. "This latest round will have detrimental effects."
    Most state agencies and departments, including the Division of Parks, began experiencing budget cuts about three years ago due to the nation's floundering economy. In the last year alone, the division suffered an 18 percent cut in funding and reduced its permanent full-time staff from 646 to 500, West said. The division also has closed lesser used areas of various state parks, such as shelter house and picnic areas, and has reduced or cut a number of services and programs to save money, he added.
    Over the years, the division has been using a greater percentage of its own revenues to pay for state park operations, up from 19 percent in 1991 to almost 50 percent today, decreasing its work force through attrition and using more unpaid volunteers. The division about a year ago also created regionalized park manager positions, which has one manager sharing duties at more than one park. But West said more cuts may need to be made if the state funding keeps decreasing.
    This round of cuts may be the worst yet due to a combination of three factors: more budget cuts, rising inflation and the termination of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided a lot of volunteer help for parks projects, West said.
    Funding for the Civilian Conservation Corps was cut last year and the service will end completely July 1.
    "They provided everything from renovation, cleanup, a number of special projects like building bridges and shelter houses and painting," West said. "Combined with the fact that we have had to cut back so many seasonal and part-time workers, this will hurt."
    West said it is still too soon to say whether any state parks will have to be closed completely.
    Grand Lake St. Marys State Park in Auglaize and Mercer counties also has experienced cuts. The park is a 14,000-acre area that includes Ohio's largest inland lake, a 216-site campground, four swimming beaches, five boat launch areas and a full service marina.
    Earlier this year, park officials decided to cancel its annual Grand Fall Festival due to statewide budget cuts. The popular September event had been held for the last five or six years at the campground in Auglaize County to help boost campground attendance. A maintenance repair position and an account clerk position were both cut last year. The park saw $138,000 in budget cuts from the state from March 2001 to May 2002.
    The duties of the park manager also changed. Morton became the new regional manager at both Grand Lake St. Marys State Park and Lake Loramie State Park in Fort Loramie, a move instituted by the Division of Parks and Recreation to save money by having one manager oversee more than one state park.
    The Senate likely will hold public hearings later this month during which people from the Grand Lake St. Marys area and all over the state can testify in Columbus against more cuts, West said.


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