Posts tagged ‘state parks’

It's Not A Just Revenue Problem in Arizona Parks, It's A Cost Problem

Former Arizona State Parks director Ken Travous takes to the editorial page of our local paper to criticize current park management and the Arizona legislature for not sending enough money to parks"

Things were looking pretty good, and I guess that’s the problem. In some odd kind of way, employing some type of sideways logic, the Legislature deemed that if State Parks is getting along well, it must be out of our control. So, after 15 years of parks acting like a business, the Legislature decided to act like a government and take their money. A little bit here and there in the beginning, to test the public reaction, and then in breathtaking swaths.

Heritage Fund ... gone. Enhancement fund ... swiped. General fund? No way. A $250,000 bequest? Oops, they caught us; better put it back.

State Parks now has a mountainous backlog of maintenance projects all because the Legislature would rather wholly own a failure than share a success. We need to put people in the halls that care about those things that we want our children to enjoy, and a governor who will stand in the breach when the next onslaught appears.

I agree with Travous that our parks could use some more funds.  But what Mr. Travous ignores is that the seeds of this problem were very much sown on his watch.

Travous points out that revenues in the parks expanded to nearly $10 million when he was in charge.  But left unsaid is that at the same time agency expenses on his watch ballooned to a preposterous $33 million a year**.  At every turn, Travous made decisions that increased the agency's costs.  For example, park rangers were all given law enforcement certifications, substantially increasing their pay and putting them all into the much more expensive law enforcement pension fund.  There is little evidence this was necessary -- Arizona parks generally are not hotbeds of crime -- but it did infuriate many customers as some rangers focused more on citation-writing than customer service.  There is a reason McDonald's doesn't write citations in their own parking lot.

What Mr. Travous fails to mention is that the parks were falling apart on his watch - even with these huge budgets - because he tended to spend money on just about anything other than maintaining current infrastructure.  Infrastructure maintenance is not sexy, and sexy projects like the Kartchner Caverns development (it is a gorgeous park) always seem to win out in government budgeting.  You can see why in this editorial -- Kartcher is his legacy, whereas bathroom maintenance is next to invisible.  I know deferred maintenance was accumulating during his tenure because Arizona State Parks itself used to say so.  Way back in 2009 I saw a book Arizona State Parks used with legislators.  It showed pictures of deteriorating parks, with notes that many of these locations had not been properly maintained for a decade.  The current management inherited this problem from previous leaders like Travous, it did not create it.

So where were those huge budgets going, if not to maintenance?  Well, for one, Travous oversaw a crazy expansion of the state parks headquarters staff.    When he left, there were about 150 people (possibly more, it is hard to count) on the parks headquarters staff.  This is almost the same number of full-time employees that were actually in the field maintaining parks.  As a comparison, our company runs public parks and campgrounds very similar to those in Arizona State Parks and we serve about the same number of visitors -- but we have only 1.5 people in headquarters, allowing us to put our resources on the ground in parks serving customers and performing maintenance.  None of the 100+ parks we operate have the same deferred maintenance problems that Arizona State Parks have, despite operating with less than a third of the budget that Travous had in his heyday.

I am not much of a political analyst, but my reading is that the legislature cut park funds because it lost confidence in the ability of Arizona State Parks to manage itself.   Did they really need to cut, say, $250,000 from parks to close a billion dollar budget hole?  Arizona State Parks had its budgets cut because the legislature did not think it was acting fiscally prudent, like cutting off a child's allowance after he has shown bad judgement.

I have met with current Director Bryan Martyn and much of the Arizona State Park staff.  Ken Travous is not telling them anything they do not know.  Of course they would like more funds to fix up their parks.  But they understand that before they can expect any such largess, they need to prove that Arizona State Parks will use its funds in a fiscally sensible manner.  And I get the impression that they are succeeding, that the legislature is gaining confidence in this agency.  The irony is that  Arizona State Parks will be able to grow and get more funds only when it has overcome the problems Travous left for them.

 

 ** Footnote:  Getting an actual budget number for ASP is an arduous task.  I once talked to a very smart local consultant named Grady Gammage who worked with parks and finally despaired of accurately laying out the budget and allocating it to tasks.  What this achieves is that it allows insiders to criticize anyone they want as being "misinformed" because almost any number one picks is wrong.   The $33 million figure comes from outside consulting reports.  The headcount numbers come from numbers the ASP information officer gave me several years ago.  Headcount numbers are different today but the ones above are relevant to the agency as it existed when Travous left.

Last Justification for Closing Private US Forest Service Concessionaires is in Tatters

The last remaining justification that anyone has given me for the need to close privately-funded concession-run parks in the US Forest Service is that the Forest Service must close to all uses on its lands.  But this justification is now in total tatters, making it all the more clear that closure of private concessionaires was an arbitrary and unjustified action.  Here is why:

  • As reported earlier, the US Forest Service is still allowing many recreation uses on its lands.  Individuals can still camp and hike in non-developed areas.  Many US Forest Service campgrounds till seem to be open (example Oak Flats near Globe, AZ).  And many state parks, such as Fool Hollow and Slide Rock in AZ and Burney Falls in CA that operate on US Forest Service land have been allowed to remain open and still use Forest Service land for recreation.  In fact, the only groups that seem to be closed in the US Forest Service are private concessionaires, which increasingly appear to have been singled out for rough treatment by the Administration.
  • We have received emails from the US Forest Service that these closures are required to be consistent with the NPS, but the NPS is allowing its parks to be reopened if they are funded by outside agencies.  Both Arizona and Utah have reached agreements to reopen National Parks in their states through use of state funding.  So why can't private parks on Federal lands be reopened through the use of private funding, which is how we operate anyway?  Its almost as if this Administration has some sort of bias against private activity.

Forest Service Closing Only Small Private Campground Operators, Not Closing Large Ski Corporations or State Parks that Operate on Forest Service Land

As readers will know, the US Forest Service has issued and unprecedented and unnecessary order to close over a thousand privately-funded campgrounds that don't take one dime of Federal money (example here).  All the 100+ parks we operate in the US Forest Service have been ordered closed.

But there appears to be more to this story.  There are several groups that operate parks on National Forest lands under agreements nearly identical to ours who appear to have been exempted from the closure order.

  • Large corporations that run ski resorts and certain other large resort properties on National Forest lands have been exempted.  It should be noted that ski resorts operators, unlike campground operators, have full-time lobbyists stationed in Washington and can afford in-house staff lawyers to fight these kinds of orders.  My guess is that knowing they would immediately get sued if they ordered larger private firms to close, the USFS focused only on smaller and more helpless private firms.
  • Many state parks, including at least 3 in Arizona and many in California, are actually on US Forest Service land and operate through special use permits almost identical to those we have with the USFS, yet none of these parks have been asked to close  (Slide Rock and Fool Hollow State Park in Arizona and Burney Falls SP in California are just a few examples of state parks that operate on US Forest Service land).

In other words, the US Forest Service seems to be issuing closure orders inconsistently, targeting only private operators who are too small to fight back.  The USFS has not been especially clear how they are justifying this order (perhaps since it can't be justified) but they have hinted that it is either because a) they can no longer "administer" these contracts, whatever that means since they have no day-to-day administration responsibilities or b) they are removing everyone from Federal lands.  Note, though, that both explanation "a" or "b" would apply equally to ski resorts and state parks operating on Federal land leases which are not being closed.

I will also add that the USFS is continuing to allow individuals to hike and camp in non-developed areas of the forests.  I have no problem with this -- there is no reason for the USFS to halt public access to public land just because their employees are getting a paid vacation.  But this just highlights how crazy and inconsistent their policies are.  People can camp in the National Forest everywhere except in developed campgrounds where private companies who take no Federal money normally have employees on site to clean up trash and provide security and prevent fires.  Many campers take good care of the land but some do not, and driving these campers out of privately-operated developed sites into dispersed areas where their impact cannot be mitigated is just another way these actions increase rather than decrease costs.

 

More Updates on Closing of Privately-Funded Parks

Fox Business has done an article on the government closing of privately funded parks.

One interesting note - many state parks operate on Federal land using almost exactly the same king of lease contract (called a special use permit) we have to privately operate parks and campgrounds.  If private parks with this type of lease with the USFS have to close, shouldn't state parks as well?  For example, both Slide Rock SP in Arizona and Burney Falls SP in California operation using the same kind of lease as we do.

Punished for Speech

I have debated a while whether to run this personal experience, and in the end have reached a (perhaps wimpy) compromise with myself to run it but disguise the agency involved.  

As most of your know, I run a company that helps keep public parks open by privately operating them.  As part of that business, it is unsurprising that I would run a specialized blog on such public-private recreation partnerships.  Most of the blog is dedicated not to selling my company per se, since there are not many who do what we do, but advancing the concept.  In particular, I spend a lot of time responding to objections from folks who are concerned that private operators will not serve the public well or care for public lands as well as civil servants do.

One such objection is around law enforcement -- parks agencies who oppose this model argue that my company cannot possibly replace them because all their rangers are law enforcement officials and mine, a certification my private employees can't match.  So a while back I wrote an article discussing this issue.

I argued that parks were not some lawless Road Warrior-style criminal anarchy and simply did not need the level of law enforcement concentration they have.   We run nearly 175 public parks and do so just fine relying on support from the sheriff's office, as does every other recreation business.

I argued that so many rangers were law enforcement officials because they have a financial incentive to get such certification (e.g. more pay and much better pension, plus the psychic benefits of carrying a gun and a badge) and not because of any particular demand for such services.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I argued that providing customer service with law enforcement officials can cause problems -- after all, McDonald's does not issue citations to their customers for parking incorrectly.  To back up the last point, I linked to an article in the Frisky (of all places) and a Yelp review of a park where customers bombarded the site with one star reviews complaining about the rangers harassing them with citations and ruining their visit.

Well, one day I got a letter via email from a regional manager of the state parks agency whose park was the subject of that Yelp review I linked.  I was notified that I had 48 hours to remove that blog post or I would lose all my contracts with that state.  In particular, they did not like a) the fact that I linked to a negative Yelp review of one of their parks and b) that I impugned the incredibly noble idea that state parks are all operated by law enforcement officials.  I found out only later that there is a very extreme law enforcement culture in this agency -- that in fact you historically could not even be promoted to higher management positions without the law enforcement badge, truly making this an agency of police officers who happen to run parks.  I would normally quote the letter's text here, but it is impossible to do so and keep the agency's name confidential.

Fortunately, I was able to write the acting General Counsel of the agency that afternoon.  Rather than sending something fiery as the first salvo, I sent a coy letter observing innocently that her agency seemed to believe that my contracts with the state imposed a prior restraint on my speech and I asked her to clarify the boundaries of that prior restraint so I would know what speech I was to be allowed.  To her credit, she called me back about 6 minutes after having received the letter and told me that it was void and asking me to please, please pretend I had never received it.  So I did, and I reward her personally for her quick and intelligent response by not naming her agency in the story.

I am reminded of all this and write it in response to this story passed on by Ken at Popehat.  It is a story of free speech and petty government retribution for it.  I will let you read the article to get the details, but I will repost the original speech that earned Rick Horowitz a good dollop of government harassment.  As an aside, I realize in posting this how far from the law and order conservative I have come since my early twenties.

Your approach should be to try to live your life, as much as possible, without giving them one minute of your time. If they want to talk to you, you should ask, “Am I being detained, or arrested?” If they say “no,” then you walk away. If they tell you that you cannot leave, then you stay put, but don’t talk to them. Because they aren’t following the law when they detain you for no reason.

And if the government will not follow the law, there is no reason why anyone else should.

Let me repeat that:

If the government will not follow the law, there is no reason why anyone else should.

So this is the proposal I set forth:

To the government, you can start following the law, or none of us will.

To everyone else, if the government will not follow the law, you should stop pretending law means anything.

It’s time to step away from the wrong.

Start fighting over everything!

 

 

Um, It Seems We Have Misplaced $2 Billion

I do a lot of work with California State Parks, being a concessionaire in some of their parks, so I have been following the various scandals in that agency closely.  One part of the scandal was that CSP apparently hid something like $54 million in reserve funds from the legislature.  I wondered how it was possible for the state to not know there was $54 million lying around un-reported.

It seems like we have a partial solution to my quandary.  It is possible to misplace $54 million when you also misplace another $2 billion.

More than $2 billion in California taxpayer money has apparently been stashed in hundreds of special funds unaccounted for by the state Department of Finance, a newspaper reported on Friday.

An examination of more than 500 special fund accounts, like the $54 million discrepancy in state parks money, showed a $2.3 billion "discrepancy" between state controller and Department of Finance numbers, according to the San Jose Mercury News ( http://bit.ly/MPdkls).

No one checks the controller's figures, so the difference wasn't caught.

The analysis showed at least 17 accounts appear to have significantly more reserve cash than what was reported to the Finance Department.

The violent crime victim restitution fund, for instance, was off by $29 million, and a low-cost child health insurance fund was off by $30 million. The fund that rewards people who recycle bottles and cans was $113 million off.

State finance officials operate under a  longtime honor system. The controller's figures were never checked and oversight groups didn't catch the discrepancies even though the numbers are publicly available on two state websites.

LOL, politicians' "honor".  We can see what that is worth.

Contempt of TSA

I have written frequently of the non-crime called "contempt of cop" which seems to be at the heart of so many bad arrests and harassment incidents.  Well, you will be happy to know that the helpful folks at the TSA want the same power, to be able to arrest anyone who does not show them proper respect and deference.

Postscript:  Thinking about this more, I have to add a personal angle.  As my company privately operates public parks, our employees are often taking over from state park rangers who have law enforcement credentials.  When we propose our services, we often get pushback on this issue -- how are we going to live without all these law enforcement officers with arrest powers and guns and badges in the parks?

The answer I give is:  Things will be better.  It is an enormous mistake to handle customer service problems with a badge and gun and hard-ass attitude, but that is often what happens in parks.  You don't see McDonald's issuing citations to their customers, but state parks organizations do it all the time.

It turns out that the reason there are so many law enforcement officers in parks has nothing to do with demand -- with very few exceptions, the parks we operate all require fractions of an FTE of law enforcement.  Maybe 20 hours a year per park.  But there are huge incentives for state workers to get a law enforcement license.  Beyond the psychic advantages of having a gun and badge, they typically qualify for a much richer law enforcement pension plan.   Park supervisors don't care -- the extra benefits don't come out of their budgets.

Minnesota Stupidity

As you probably know, Minnesota is in the midst of a government shutdown due to lack of a budget.  My daughter is doing a project for me putting together the names and contact information for all 50 state parks directors.  It turns out the MN parks web site is shut down.

LOL.  I am the only one in my company with access to or capable of updating our web site, but I can go away for weeks, even months, and have the web site stay up.  This strikes me as either stupid, or a gratuitous effort to purposely make the shutdown more dramatic than it needs to be.

To the latter point, our company operates many Federal parks.   Since we take no money from the government and use no government personell in doing so, the parks we operate typically stay open in a Federal shut down.  Except for the last threatened shut down several months ago, when our contract managers seemed to be getting guidance from their higher ups in the administration to shut the parks down, even when they did not need to be.  I presume this was for the purpose of making the shut down seem worse to the public.  After all, we would hate to have a government shut down and have nobody notice.

It will be interesting come about August 2 to see if we remain open.

A Better Model For Keeping Parks Open

Many of you may be familiar with threatened closures of state parks in many states in the country.  Due to budget issues, state parks budgets have been slashed for years, and in many cases state parks are litterally falling apart due to deferred maintenance.  Now, faced with further budget cuts, states are in the process of closing many state parks.  Arizona has already announced a closure list, and California is expected to release a closure list this week.  States including Washington, Texas, Florida, New York, and New Jersey are all actively discussing park closures.

Far larger than any state parks agency, in fact the largest public recreation agency in world (by total number of sites) is the US Forest Service, which operates campgrounds, picnic areas, hiking trails and boat launches in nearly every nook and cranny of the country.  Yesterday, in President Obama's new budget, the President proposed drastically slashing the US Forest Service (USFS) recreation budget.  This is no surprise, as the USFS has had its recreation budget eroded for decades.

But despite these cuts, most USFS recreation sites will remain open.  There is no talk, as in the states, of wholesale closures.  There is, in most USFS recreation sites, no growing accumulation of deferred maintenance.  In fact, even if Congress and the President shut down the government (as happened under Bill Clinton and may happen this year), many USFS recreation sites, unlike nearly every other Federal facility, will remain open.

Why?  Because decades ago, the USFS was forced to find and adopt a new model for managing its recreation sites, a model that could easily keep most state parks open if states were willing to consider it.  To understand this opportunity, we first need to look at the traditional model for running public parks.

Traditional Model

The traditional model for running public parks and recreation sites has two components:

  • Use of high cost government labor to run park operations.  Beyond just being high cost (in absolute wages and benefits) this labor is generally not well-matched to the task.  For example, state employees are hired for 12-month-a-year jobs, even when park visitation is highly seasonal.  In addition, college environmental science and parks management grads are employed whose interests are not well-matched to mundane tasks that dominate park operations, such as cleaning bathrooms and picking up trash.
  • Providing free or very low cost access. Most state parks offer free or below-market public access fees for day use parks or campgrounds.  While it makes sense for agencies to offer free options for the public in their portfolio of parks, offering subsidized pricing at every park creates a huge need for appropriated funds (particularly given their high operating costs).  While this subsidized access seems to be a public benefit, it actually works against the public as general fund appropriations dry up and maintenance has to be deferred and parks have to be closed.

One step several states have taken is to abandon the second part of this model by charging market pricing, and even above-market pricing.  Arizona State Parks generally charges market-level pricing for park entry, but as budgets got tighter they actually doubled entry fees to as much as $20 per car to park  at certain popular parks.  California has done the same thing, increasing the price of no-hookup camping as high as $30 a night, when pricing of similar campsites in, say, the USFS in California typically run no higher than $18-$20 a night.  The reason for this is their very high cost operations model, and even these higher fees have not headed off park closures in these states.

A New Model

About 30 years ago, the USFS began experimenting with a new model for running its recreation sites.  I can't say that the USFS did this willingly, and even today there are many in the agency who long for the day when they can return to the traditional model.  In fact, necessity, in the form of Congressional legislation combined with declining appropriated funds for recreation, really forced the change.  Today, over half of USFS recreation facilities are run under this new model, and if weighted by visitation, the number surely would be over 90%.

The model includes these two key elements:

  • Use of low-cost private labor for operations.  Thirty years ago the USFS began using private operators to run campgrounds and busy day use facilities under a concession arrangement, meaning the private operator collected all revenue and paid all expenses for the site, and paid the USFS a fee for the privilege of doing so.  With the stroke of a pen, sites that required appropriated money to operate suddenly were money makers for the USFS.  As a further refinement, Congress gave the USFS the authority (and the incentive) to apply the fees they earned from campground and park operators to maintenance and improvement projects in the recreation facilities themselves.
  • Charging market-based use fees.  In this program, private operators charge market-based fees (which must be approved by the USFS) that fully cover their costs AND allow for a payment back to the USFS.  Recreation sites in this program no longer require public appropriations at all -- they are entirely self-sustaining.  That is why many USFS recreation sites will remain open even if the government shuts down

As both the public agency and private operators have gained knowledge about the program, this model has continued to be improved.  For example, early on the USFS merely offered the largest facilities to private managers.  However, they soon learned that if they continued to do so, they might be worse off budget-wise because they would be left with many small, expensive facilities to manage themselves.  As a result, the USFS has learned to offer private operators packages or bundles of recreation sites, that generally include all the sites in one geographic area, big and small.

It is important to understand that this is merely a lease arrangement -- this is not a stealth way to dispose of public lands into private hands.  These are highly structured arrangements that require the private operator to conform to numerous restrictions.  In particular, the private operator may not change or add facilities, services, operating hours, or fees without the agency's written permission.  No one, in other words, is out there building a McDonald's in front of Old Faithful under this arrangement (there are several other very predictable critiques of this model, which hare answered here).

One added benefit of this arrangement is that, though there are some bad private operators, in general facilities are actually run better under this model.  One reason is that maintenance and operations are fully funded, so no skimping is required.  Another reason is that since they are paid with park revenues (rather than some flat fee), private operators benefit from, and therefore have the incentive to encourage, higher visitation.  Finally, the skills and preferences and background of most private workers are better matched to the routine operating tasks required.  As a result, most privately operated public parks get good reviews for their quality.   As just one example, this independent site ranks public campgrounds in Arizona -- in this survey, three of the top five sites are run by a private concessionaire in the USFS program, while none are operated by our state parks agency.

The Future

As I mentioned earlier, there are many people both inside the USFS and in the general public that long to return the traditional model -- Agency leaders would love to have the prestige that would come from larger headcounts and budgets;  public employees unions would generally rather see parks closed than have further precedents for private management established; and certain recreation user groups would prefer that taxpaying non-users pay for their recreation.

But the bankruptcy of the traditional model is likely here to stay.  Current budget problems in state parks is not simply a product of this recession -- for example, here in Arizona, park maintenance was under-funded even in the good times.  The reality of government is that non-discretionary expenditures (e.g. health care, entitlement, pensions) are growing far faster than the economy and are going to totally consume government budgets.  Discretionary spending, particularly in the case of things like parks that can support themselves with fees, is going to continue to be crowded out.

If you are interested in this model, you can find out more at this site  (just scan down the page).  We are planning a national conference on private management of public parks as a way to keep parks open, and you can sign up for information on the conference here.  And, as usual, you are always welcome to email me at the link on this site.

On Wanting to Debate

This has to be one of the lamest things I have seen in a while.

Fred Singer offered to debate Richard Somerville and Naomi Oreskes in January in San Diego. Both declined. Oreskes said she didn't want to debate someone "with a known record of promoting public misrepresentation of science."

This is used as an excuse to avoid debate by climate alarmists all the time.  But it makes no sense.  If someone is either a) using really bad arguments or b) spreading misrepresentations, I would definitely want to debate them.

Last week my speech at Arizona State on privatizing the operation of state parks was turned into a debate between myself and the most vocal opposition to the approach, the head of the Arizona Sierra Club.  When asked if I would be willing to debate rather than speak, my answer was "hell yes."

You see, I am actually confident in my arguments.  I was longing to have a face to face debate on this topic.  In fact, I was incredibly frustrated that opponents of using private companies to help manage public recreation were constantly arguing against a straw man that doesn't actually exist in reality.  You can see that in spades in the debate below (I am the second speaker, the Sierra Club person is the third).   Note how, despite nearly a year in Arizona of public discourse on this topic (pushed mainly by yours truly), opponents are still criticising the model based on hypothesized implementations, rather than observation of actual examples within an hour's drive of where we were speaking. 

I start at 19:45, which I am sure everyone wants to watch ;=)  And yes I talk too fast, to make it a debate they cut my 45 minutes down to 10.

New Jersey Privatization Initiative

New Jersey under Christie continues to be a leader in challenging traditional government models.   I discuss and link to some of the findings over at my privatization blog, including some interesting findings on recreation.  This is from Reason's Len Gilroy:

Park management concession agreements: Having written numerous articles in recent months suggesting that states embrace the private operation of state parks"”something relatively "new" to states, but common at the federal level"”it was particularly rewarding to see the Task Force embrace the concept, recommending that the state should enter into one or more long"term concession agreements with private recreation firms for the operation and management of all state parks. Annual savings to the state were estimated to range between $6-8 million annually, a significant sum relative to overall park spending. This is the boldest, most sweeping call for state park privatization that I've personally ever seen at the state level, and Gov. Christie and NJ State Parks have an opportunity to blaze a new and transformational path forward on state parks management that policymakers in every state should be watching closely.

My Interview with Glenn Beck

See my discussion with Glenn Beck of my proposal to keep Arizona state parks open on my park privatization blog here or at Beck's site here.   My first TV interview, and I guess I jumped in the deep end.

I answered questions about the interview mechanics here, but one other thing people asked about - I don't know Mr. Beck nor have I had any contact with him until his staff called me out of the blue for an interview.  With the exception of Terry Gilberg at KFYI, I haven't even been interviewed by any of the local media so it was odd, and exhilarating, to jump right to a national stage.

On The Air on Park Privatization in Arizona

I am on 550 KFYI radio at 8 tonight in Phoenix talking about my offer to keep state parks open. Update: The audio is posted here.

Pot, Meet Kettle

In opposition to a proposal for park privatization in Utah:

Mary Tullius, director of the Division of State Parks and Recreation, doesn't think so.  She says the state prides itself on giving Utah families affordable destinations like state parks. And if those destinations were made private, the quality would suffer.

"History has told us that whenever you privatize something people are so focused on making money that they don't pay attention to the infrastructure or to the maintenance of the facility. What happens after five years and they've run something and they haven't taken care of it and they turn back to the state? And then the state has a much bigger problem," she said.

This is hilariously wrong.  As readers probably know, my business is the private operation of public parks.  The number one problem we have in taking over government parks is that they are usually terribly run down.  By the time the government is finally willing to turn to private companies for help (generally in the category of "last resort") the government has typically been ignoring the capital maintenance needs of the parks for years.  As I have written before, government is terrible about appropriating sufficient amounts of capital maintenance dollars.  We see it in everything from parks to the Washington metro.

Nowadays, as a condition of taking over the operation of public parks, our company is generally asked to make a large up-front contribution to tackling deferred maintenance in the park.  In fact, in our newest contract with the Tennessee Valley Authority, we actually have rebuilt the entire park and campground from the ground up.

I am sure there are some private operators who have let things run down, but in general this has occurred when the public authority has insisted on giving the operator a series of 1-year contracts rather than a real 10-20 year contract.  Who is going to replace the roof if the contract only lasts for another 6 months.  On the other hand, who is going to fail to keep things nice if he knows he is going to be there for another 15 years?

I hear this kind of rant from people within the government all the time.  They seem to believe it, but it is hard to find an example where it is true.  When I worked for an oil company, they planned on having to totally rebuild their retail stations every 20 years or so.  What legislature plans for this kind of expenditure?

My current proposal to keep a number of Arizona State Parks open is here.

Arizona Parks Privitization

The AZ Republic has an editorial today saying that privatization is not the answer for the Arizona State Parks budget woes.   On the plus side, they did actually call me for my opinion yesterday before they published it.  On the down side, they ignored everything I said.  Here is my response:

I run one of the larger private parks management companies in the country, which is based right here in Phoenix. Like many Arizona residents, I am a frequent visitor to our state parks and am sympathetic to their current budget pain. Further, I am not one to offer up privatization as a panacea for all the park's woes -- the state parks organization fulfills a variety of public missions that cannot be undertaken well privately. But I think you missed a couple of important considerations in your editorial today counseling against privatization options.

First, from my experience with public recreation agencies around the country, these budget pressures on parks organizations never really end. Recreation is almost always a key pawn in budget fights, and even if Arizona State Parks funding is restored this year, we likely will be fighting the same battles in a few years. Private concession management of parks has the advantage of taking parks off the budget, so they no longer can fall victim to budget fights. For example, in the famous 1995 federal government shutdown, private concession run facilities in the US Forest Service were the only federal recreation options that remained open through the whole budget battle.

Second, while small low-visitation parks, on a standalone basis, may not represent a very good business opportunity, there are a variety of ways to handle privatization of smaller parks. We run approximately 175 public parks and campgrounds across the country, and well fewer than half of these stand on their own as private business opportunities. But many public agencies have learned to package smaller, low-visitation parks with higher-visitation parks into multi-park packages that both provide operators a business opportunity as well as meet the public's goal of keeping all of its parks open. Further, states like California have found many creative ways to keep historic sites open using private management. These solutions, at places like Columbia State Park, not only keep historic buildings open to the public but also create events and services that bring history alive and make it more interesting, particularly to children.

I know that private management is often sloughed off with statements like, "they would just build a McDonald's or put in a bunch of billboards." But thousands of parks nationally are managed privately, and this never happens. In part, this is because business people should get some credit for intelligence, and they understand what attracts people to outdoor parks in the first place and don't want to mess with the ambiance. In addition, we often have 100+ page operating agreements in place that carefully set out the quality of our services and the approvals we must obtain to make any changes to the facilities.

Further, it is sometimes suggested that private companies would just jack up the price. Well, Arizona State Parks is proposing to raise the Slide Rock entrance fee to $20. In contrast, we run nearby picnic and day use areas at places like Grasshopper Point and we rapacious capitalists only charge $8.

I am not advocating that Arizona State Parks turn off the lights and throw the keys to a private company; but I do think that private concession management could offer a piece of the long-term solution to keeping state parks open, both now and in future budget battles.

Total Frustration With Arizona Parks

For the last year, I have watched in total frustration as Arizona State Parks threaten closure after closure to fix budget problems.  This is, of course, when they are not begging for new taxes to be dedicated to them.

For those who don't know, my company is in the business of privatizing public recreation.  At the moment, we are so swamped with requests from public authorities to keep parks open that I don't really bother going out and seeking new business.  But it is frustrating for me as an Arizona resident to know that many of these parks could remain open  (and user fees kept reasonable) under some sort of private concession management.

I know this may seem weird to you given that I work so much with governments, but I have no idea how to lobby government.  Unlike, say, John Murtha related enterprises, we get all the business we need simply responding to inquiries from public authorities who need help and submitting proposals in response to RFP's**.  In fact, if I had to lobby to keep the business running I would shut it down first.

So I have had no idea how to approach those involved in the Arizona parks debate to tell them there are alternatives.   I get frustrated each day as I see folks in the parks organization tell the media that private management would not work because none of their parks would make good business opportunities, when I know for a fact this is not true  (I operate stores in two of the parks and am familiar with several others, and have sent them unsolicited management proposals to run these parks -- again, I am not necessarily seeking the business, but I want to give the lie to the statement that private companies would not be interested).  Interestingly, two of the largest private recreation managers in the country are located in the Phoenix area, and neither of us have ever gotten a media call on this issue.

Of course, I am not completely naive.  I know there is a tried and true kabuki dance here where parks departments threaten to close down the Washington Monument in a bid for public sympathy that will either deflect budget cuts or spur new taxes.  I also know that state parks directors have sworn a blood oath together never to let private concessionaires run whole parks, even if the parks have to be shut down  (our company runs whole parks for folks like the US Forest Service and TVA, but most state parks only let concessionaires run the store or marina, not the whole park).  I know this anti-private law of omerta exists, because our company once sponsored a breakfast at a national state parks directors conference and we were in the room (unknown to the speakers) when this no-private-company discussion was held.

I have called and sent letters to nearly everyone in the state, but have not gotten any response.  To assuage my frustration that no one is even reading them, I will reprint one here just to say that someone, even if it is a reader in Australia, actually looked at it:

Janice K. Brewer, Governor;   Reese Woodling, Chair, Arizona State Parks Board; Maria Baier, State Lands Commissioner; Rene Bahl, Arizona State Parks Director

Many of the state parks currently proposed for closure could easily be kept open to the public under private concession management.  I run one of the larger operators of public recreation concessions in the country, and our company is the current store and marina concessionaire at Patagonia Lake State Park and Slide Rock State Park.  I know from experience both with public recreation in general as well as with Arizona State Parks that these parks (as well as many other in the ASP system) could easily be operated by a company like ours, retaining high quality recreation options for the public while converting a liability for the state into a financial asset.

For years we have urged the management of Arizona State Parks to consider private operations of more than just the stores in these parks.  For example, we operate whole parks turnkey for the US Forest Service, the National Forest Service, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the United Water Conservation District (CA), and the Lower Colorado River Authority (TX).  By operating the park to high quality standards but at a lower cost, we are able to make a profit for ourselves and pay an annual rental fee (usually contracted as a percentage of sales) to the government authority that owns the park.

I find it tremendously frustrating that the private concession option has not even been put on the table for discussion, or gets sloughed off with tired clichés such as "private companies would just put up a McDonalds."  When we operate any public park, we operate under a strict and detailed operating agreement, typically running over 100 pages, that sets procedures for everything from bathroom cleaning frequency to approvals for fee changes.  We operate busy day use facilities such as Grasshopper Point and Crescent Moon along Oak Creek in Sedona side by side with Arizona State Parks at Slide Rock, and we maintain these facilities in at least as good a condition, while keeping fees to $8 (vs. $20 at Slide Rock) and still paying rent to the USFS for the concession.

I am not looking for any special consideration for our company.  I know such contracts must be competitively bid and we don't shy away from such competition.  However, I know that the management of Arizona State Parks has, for whatever reason, been resistant to the idea of private concession operations of entire parks, and I was afraid that this option may not have been presented to you as a viable alternative to closing these facilities.

I would be happy to discuss private concession management any time with you or your staff.

Sincerely,

Warren Meyer
President

Postscript: Interestingly, the most open state parks director to these ideas was Ruth Coleman in California.  Contrary to what one might expect, California State Parks is actually one of the more innovative and creative parks organizations out there in terms of privatizing certain functions and seeking private capital  (Texas, on the other hand, is one of the worst --  go figure).

Ms. Coleman was very supportive of our making investments in California Parks (example:  Cabins here) where no other park system has been so open.  She was nice enough to allow our company to sit on a panel of folks looking at potential solutions to the California Parks budget issues.  But her organization was openly hostile to any private participation, and essentially said they would rather see parks closed than remain open under private management.   For example, here was probably the most supportive comment we got:  "Well, I guess I could accept some private companies in the parks as long as we didn't allow them to make a profit."  Again, that was the least hostile statement.

**Footnote: The typical lifecycle of this business is that a public agency runs to us begging to take something over to keep it open.  We do so on a quickly negotiated contract, and then find ourselves spending a ton of money to fix all the deferred maintenance problems left by the public agency.   About when we finally get the place cleaned up and public trust restored and finally have the prospect to make a little money at the location, the public agency decides it is time to seek competitive bids.  Everyone who refused run the place when it was a mess now come out of the woodwork to bid on running the facility now that its fixed up, several of whom seem to have oddly close relationships with senior officials of the public agency.  We bid, some of which we win and some of which we lose.  If we win, we get to enjoy the fruits of our labor.  If we lose, we shrug and try again.

I Finally May Be Understanding Something

This year has been a frustrating year for my business.  As many of you know, I am in the business of privatizing public recreation.  We take over the management of public recreation facilities, and are generally able to run them to the same or better standards as the government for less money.  Whereas before we take over, the government typically loses money on a park, we often can run it at a profit AND pay the government rent for the concession rights.

This year, numerous state parks have been threatened with closure in states all across the country.  In many of these states, I have communicated with everyone I could think of, from the governor to state parks leaders, trying to say that companies like ours could probably keep many of these parks open. I told them I wasn't looking for a sweetheart deal - we weren't afraid to bid against other companies, but it was crazy to close parks that could easily remain open.   We have been told any number of times by numerous state leaders that they would prefer to close the park rather than put it under private concession management.

To some extent, this is due to the pressure of public employees unions, who have every incentive to play brinkmanship and force closure of parks rather than set the precedent of having them managed by a non-union private company.  This is unsurprising.

I also understand that there is a fear of private management of public recreation facilities.  I swear the first think I hear almost every time I present on what we do  is that they fear we would put a billboard or a McDonalds in front of Old Faithful.  I kid you not, this charge is as regular as clockwork.  Fortunately, we manage about 175 public recreation facilities to a pretty high standard, and not one billboard or McDonalds can be found at any of them.  A large part of the bid process for any facility management contract is not just the rate or the rent but also the detailed operating standards to which it will be managed.  So this is a normal, but surmountable hurdle.

But even taking into account these usual sources of resistance, I am always just amazed at how vociferous the opposition is to even experimenting with private management.  States like California are simply hell-bent on closing parks a company like ours could easily keep open for the public (to be fair, Ruth Coleman, head of California State Parks, is very open to new models but she gets absolutely no support either within her organization or in the legislature for such new ideas).

But I think I understand this phenomenon better now after reading Kevin Drum today. This is what Drum wrote in response to the DNC ad, which clearly stretched the truth, claiming that Republicans voted to end Medicare:

Why not just tell the truth: Republicans essentially voted in favor of turning Medicare over to private industry.  With only a few words of explanation, this could easily be more effective than the ad that actually ran.  Like so:

Republicans voted to turn Medicare over to private insurance companies!  You heard right: they want to hand Medicare over to the same companies that [insert two or three insurance company outrages here, maybe a Wall Street reference, something about profits over people, etc.].  Democrats will never do that.  Blah blah blah.

Would that really be any less scary than the ad that actually ran?

So for Drum, and I presume for much of the Left, the suggestion that a government service be managed privately is just as bad as the suggestion that the service be ended. In essence, Drum is saying he would almost rather have no Medicare than Medicare provided privately.

It certainly explains a lot, and puts the phenomenon I see in public recreation into a larger context.

Update: A couple of the comments hpothesize the problem is that many in government and on the left just hate profits and the profit motive in general.  One related story -- I was in a meeting with a large state parks organization where a senior person raised the idea of private park management.  Well, everyone hated the idea, but when it looked as if the leadership might still seriously consider the private option, one person in the room said "well could we at least mandate that they can't make a profit."  There was a lot of head nodding at this.

I didn't go off on this and kept a smile on my face.  But I did lose it in an earlier meeting with the head of some government parks we actually did run.  We were discussing park fee increases for the next year (the state had just raised minimum wages about 30% and we were scrambling to make ends meet).  He said he was uncomfortable with the level of profits we made.  I asked him, "Jim (not his real name) does this state pay you more than $25,000 a year to run this park?"  He nodded.  I said, "then you make more profit in this park than I do, and what is more, you didn't have to invest $100,000 in equipment to get your job, nor do you have to rebid for your job every 5 years, nor does you salary go down if for some reason park visitation decreases."

Sometimes I wish I had stood up in that state meeting and said something similar, as in "Why is the money I make in a park somehow tainted because it is the difference between my revenues and expenses and the result of substantial investments and subject to extraordinary risks, while the virtually guaranteed-for-life salary you make, paid for by the same visitors, is somehow pristine?"

Public vs. Private

I believe most of my regular readers know that in my day job I am involved in privatization of public recreation.  For fairly obvious reasons, I never blog about the public recreation agencies with whom I work.  In particular, I don't think its fair that an agency that is at least visionary enough to consider private management of its recreation have its dirty laundry spread all over my blog.

But there is one situation with a particular state parks organization that is driving me so crazy that I must share the story publicly, but I will do so without revealing the state. I have no reason to believe that what I describe is unusual.

The state parks organization runs a bit fewer than thirty parks and campgrounds, whereas our company runs over 150 public parks and campgrounds.  Their total operation budget for parks is about the same as my company's annual expenses.  The state parks organization gets about 20% of all its labor hours donated for free by volunteers, whereas we are prohibited by the Fair Labor Standards Act from accepting volunteer labor.  Their parks are spread all over a large state, ours are spread from Washington to Florida.

By scale and scope, our company is reasonably considered larger and more complex, though the state has some reporting requirements I do not have.  There are two major differences between us, though, which are telling:

  1. Including myself, our company has 3.5 people on the corporate staff with total corporate office space of about 700 sq ft. -- everyone else is dedicated to and works at a particular facility.  This state parks organization has scores of people working in a dedicated headquarters building with tens of thousands of square feet of space.
  2. Demand for public recreation is booming, as people are looking for low cost recreation opportunities.  Our pre-season camping reservations, for example, are at an all time high.  We have had to scrape deep, but we are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in expansion money this year to address opportunities to serve more visitors.  This state parks organization is cutting back parks.  It has closed a number of parks, and plans to close more, and has cut most of its investment.  To my knowledge, it has done nothing to address headquarters staff costs, nor is it able by state rules to take any credit in its budget for expected increases in park fee collections.

The staff level bureaucracy problem is just endemic to government.  I would love to look at the growth of staffing of public schools by type of employee over the last 30 years -- my bet would be that the total number of teachers is flat to down while the number of administrators and assistant principals have skyrocketed.

Update: I have had parks employees writing me guessing that I was writing about their organization.  They made the point that their parks organization is not comparable to ours, as their organization had been saddled with a number of non-recreation missions that were expensive (e.g. preservation, certain environmental goals, historical interpretation, etc)  This is certainly true, though not of every parks organization or necesarily the one about which I was writing.  But one could argue that this kind of mission creep is a failure point in public agencies.  While there are incentives for this to occur in both public and private organizations, there are fewer corrective mechanisms in the publis sphere to push back.  In fact, in the public sphere, new missions are a blessing because they often carry new funding.  In the private sector, new missions threaten to dillute results and are more resented.

How to Keep State Parks Open in California

Letter I sent to Governor Schwartzenegger in response to his plan to close a number of California State Parks due to budget problems:

I know many people are
probably contacting you to oppose proposed closures of state parks to help meet
budget targets. My message is a bit
different: Closing these parks is
totally unnecessary. 

I own and manage one of the
larger concessionaires in the California State Park (CSP) system. We are the concessionaire at Clear Lake
and Burney Falls. At Burney Falls, for example, we have invested over a million dollars
of our money in a public-private partnership with the state to revamp to the
park. We also operate parks for the
National Park Service, the US Forest Service, Arizona State Parks, Texas
State Parks, and other public authorities.

Traditionally, CSP has
engaged concessionaires to run stores and marinas within parks, but not to run
entire parks. However, in many other
states, our company runs entire parks and campgrounds for other government
authorities, and does so to the highest quality standards. 

So, I can say with confidence
that many of the California State Parks proposed for closure would be entirely
viable as private concessions. For
example, we operate the store and marina at Clear Lake State Park
but
could easily run the entire park and make money doing so, while also paying
rent to the state for the privilege.

I know that there are some
employees of the CSP system that oppose such arrangements with private
companies out of fears for their job security. But it would be a shame to close parks entirely when an opportunity
exists to keep them open to the public, and improve the state budget picture in
doing so. 

Even if California decides to keep these parks open, I would encourage
you to have your staff investigate the possibility of expanding private
operation of state parks. CSP already
has one of the best and most capable concession management programs in the
country, a success you should seek to build on. The infrastructure is already there in CSP to solicit bids for these
projects and ensure that management of them meets the state's quality and
customer service standards.

Even though everything I said here is true, it probably is a non-starter because most state organizations are dead set against such private management.  They would rather close services to the public than establish the precedent of private management. 

Besides, the whole parks closure may well be a bluff.  Unlike private company budget discussions, where it is expected that managers offer up their marginal projects for cuts, the public sector works just opposite:  Politicians propose their most popular areas of spending (parks, emergency services) for cuts in a game of chicken to try to avoid budget cuts altogether.  As I wrote here:

Imagine that you are in a budget meeting at your company.  You and a
number of other department heads have been called together to make
spending cuts due to a cyclical downturn in revenue.  In your
department, you have maybe 20 projects being worked on by 10 people,
all (both people and projects) of varying quality.   So the boss says
"We have to cut 5%, what can you do?"  What do you think her reaction
would be if you said "well, the first thing I would have to cut is my
best project and I would lay off the best employee in my department". 

If this response seems nuts to you, why do we let politicians get
away with this ALL THE TIME?  Every time that politicians are fighting
against budget cuts or for a tax increase, they always threaten that
the most critical possible services will be cut.  Its always emergency
workers that are going to be cut or the Washington Monument that is
going to be closed.  Its never the egg license program that has to be cut.

Update: Here is the form letter the governor's office sent out in response to my letter:

A weakened national economy and auto-pilot state spending has created a projected budget shortfall of $14.5 billion for fiscal year 2008-09. Although state government revenues this coming year are actually forecast to hold steady, the problem is that every year automatic spending formulas increase expenditures.  Left unchecked, next year's budget would need to grow by 7.3-percent, which is $7.6 billion; even booming economies can't meet that kind of increase.  To immediately combat this crisis, the Governor has proposed a 10-percent reduction in nearly every General Fund program from their projected 2008-09 funding levels.  While these reductions are unquestionably painful and challenging, this across-the-board approach is designed to protect essential services by spreading reductions as evenly as possible.

To achieve this difficult reduction, State Parks will be reducing both its permanent and seasonal workforce.  As a result, 48 park units will be closed or partially closed to the public and placed in caretaker status.  By closing parks and eliminating positions, remaining resources can be consolidated and shifted to other parks to provide for services necessary to keep those parks open and operating.  While 48 parks are affected by closures, 230 parks-or 83% of the system-will remain open.

We must reform our state budget process.  Government cannot continue to put people through the binge and purge of our budget process that has now led to park closures.  That's why the Governor has proposed a Budget Stabilization Act.  Under the Governor's plan, when revenues grow, Sacramento would not be able to spend all the money.  Instead, we would set a portion aside in a Revenue Stabilization Fund to stabilize the budget in down years.  If a deficit develops during the year, instead of waiting to accumulate billions of dollars of debt, the Governor's plan would automatically trigger lower funding levels already agreed upon by the Legislature.  Had this system been in place the past decade, we would not be facing a $14.5 billion deficit. 

As Governor Schwarzenegger works with his partners in the Legislature, he will keep your concerns in mind.  With your help, we will turn today's temporary problem into a permanent victory for the people of California.