At a press conference Tuesday afternoon in Spanish Fort, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) officials outlined a series of park closings and lost services that would be made if the state cuts ADCNR funding to fix the $200 million budget deficit it is currently facing.
The ADCNR is not a general fund agency, so any “cuts” come in the form of transfers from its budget into the general fund. ADCNR Commissioner Gunter Guy said $27 million in administrative transfers have been made over the last four years to fill general fund gaps.
In two legislative sessions this year and a third beginning next Tuesday, Guy said lawmakers have considered budgets that included proposed transfers of $5.4 million, $9.2 million and most recently $18.3 million. If approved, the $18.3 million will be transferred quarterly.
Depending on the amount of transfers in an approved budget, examples of possible changes in ADCNR services include closure of parks and services, closures of Wildlife Management Areas and game and fish facilities, forever wild closures, marine resources facilities on the coast, closure of lands, and a loss of federal funding.
“In Montgomery they talk about cutting government agencies and say it doesn’t affect you,” Guy said. “But a cut to a park or marine resources means our customers won’t get those services and won’t be here fishing, or paying to use a facility, or going to a park. They won’t be buying gas to come here or buying other goods and services. That’s part of the economic engine our department represents.”
The 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center, home to approximately 55,000 to 60,000 visitors per year, is a State Lands Department park. State Lands Director Patti Powell said a large transfer from the ADCNR budget would affect more than just one department. She said most of the people on the State Lands staff perform several duties for the ADCNR, and because of that, cuts to staff in one department would affect all others.
“The cuts of this magnitude would not be felt by just one department,” Powell said. “We are all connected. Those cuts will run across the department and in all the services we provide.”
Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director Chuck Sykes said his staff is already a “skeleton crew” and further cuts could mean the state is forced to close its wildlife management areas (WMA). There are three WMAs in the Mobile and Baldwin County area, including two in the upper and lower delta and one at Perdido River.
Sykes also said deep cuts could lower the amount of law enforcement officers employed through the department. He also said WFF staff members are often the first people the state calls on to help out after natural disasters like hurricanes or tornadoes.
“If landowners have problems with poachers, our law enforcement officers are the ones who deal with those issues,” Sykes said. “Without them, there will be no one to respond.”
According to State Parks Director Greg Lein, the state can legally take $1 million out of the department’s revolving fund, which is where guest revenue is deposited. Lein said there was about $3 million in that fund last year, and payroll was about $1 million per month.
He said the parks department lost $5 million and $7 million after transfers in 2012 and 2013.
“There’s not a lot of room to negotiate and there’s not much left to take out,” Lein said. “And the fact that this is being dealt with at the eleventh hour, we don’t have time to come up with contingency plans.”
Lein said that because funding for some of ADCNR’s departments is legally earmarked for those programs, its commissioner must hit the state parks budget before those because of the possible legal ramifications.
“At some level what they are doing is taking our customers’ money and moving into some other government program in the general fund,” he said. “It is almost like an indirect tax.”