By LEAH STRATMANN
At the last meeting of the Coastal Dune Lakes Advisory Board (CDLAB) a member of the South Walton Community Council (SWCC) informed the group the state had slated a number of parks in northwest Florida to be temporarily closed as a means of saving money. The eight parks represent 24 percent of the parks in the northwest part of the state, the highest percentage state wide. Overall, the state plans to close 19 parks.
Jessica Kemper, information director for the Florida Park Service said in an e-mail, “The total cost savings to the Division of Recreation and Parks for the proposed closure of 19 parks and transfer of three is $1,910,920. This represents approximately 24 percent of the division’s 10 percent reduction proposal.”
Kemper said, “When compiling the list of proposed temporary closures, attendance and revenue were carefully examined. No specific region was targeted to contain a majority of the closures. These parks were chosen based on low visitation numbers and revenue compared to relatively high operating budgets. If closed, these parks will remain under the supervision of a full-time caretaker. Where feasible, the department will do everything in its power to retain displaced staff in other agency positions.”
Deer Lake State Park does not charge an entry fee, nor is there a registration book, making attendance and use of the park difficult to determine. Kemper said the budget for this park is $45,479, which includes the cost of a ranger and benefits, although park visitors say there is never a ranger present. Queried about this, Kemper said, “Deer Lake State Park is taken care of under the management of Grayton Beach State Park. Currently, one ranger is assigned to Deer Lake State Park and other staff from Grayton Beach tend to the park as necessary.”
Grayton Beach is charged more than $167,000 for salaries and benefits, plus a myriad of other expenses, for a total budget of $451,651 annually. Kemper said none of the rangers at parks due to close will lose their jobs, but would instead be given the option to transfer to other parks. Funding for seasonal workers would be eliminated or reduced.
“State parks will continue providing high quality service to the public while decreasing expenditure where possible. We fully intend to re-open the 19 parks potentially facing closure when the state’s economy improves. While this was a difficult decision, the proposal reflects our effort to reduce expenditure while protecting the greatest number of staff members,” Kemper wrote.
It was the consensus of the CDLAB to approach the county about taking over the park if it closed. Kemper said none of the parks would officially close until the measure is deliberated by the state legislature and it was therefore premature to consider options, such as takeover by the county. Members of the SWCC had suggested an honor system of park fee payments plus a registration book so that park usage could be calculated.
The legislative session begins March 3. If the legislature agrees to the closures, it will then have to be approved by the governor. The 19 parks on the list are: Yellow River Marsh Preserve State Park, Santa Rosa County; St. Marks River State Park, Leon County; Lake June-In-Winter Scrub State Park, Highlands County; Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park, Nassau County; Constitution Convention Museum State Park, Gulf County; John Gorrie Museum State Park, Franklin County; Deer Lake State Park, Walton County; Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek State Park, Polk County; Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park, Escambia County; Terra Ceia Preserve State Park, Manatee County; Letchworth-Love Mounds Archaeological State Park, Jefferson County; Dunns Creek, Putnam County; San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park, Wakulla County; Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park, Monroe County; Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park, Monroe County; Dudley Farm Historic State Park, Alachua County; Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, Okeechobee County; Nature and Heritage Tourism Center, Hamilton County; and Cedar Key Museum State Park in Levy County.