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State parks are crumbling as Oklahoma lawmakers pitch 8-year maintenance plan to fix problems

A child fishes at Lake Thunderbird State Park. Lawmakers are pitching an eight-year maintenance plan that would repair and update state parks across Oklahoma.
Kyle Phillips
For Oklahoma Voice
A child fishes at Lake Thunderbird State Park. Lawmakers are pitching an eight-year maintenance plan that would repair and update state parks across Oklahoma.

In northwest Oklahoma, a cave-in has gone unfixed for at least five years.

In eastern Oklahoma, officials had to close a state park when the nearly 100-year-old water treatment plant failed, leaving visitors with no safe drinking water. When the temporary pump arrived, a staff member had to go out to the site every four hours until the replacement pump came in.

In southern Oklahoma, cabins that could be generating revenue sit empty.

“As a citizen of Oklahoma, it makes me extremely sad that we’re at a point where this infrastructure is crumbling before our eyes,” said Shelley Zumwalt, executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation.

Across the state, Oklahoma’s parks are careening from one emergency infrastructure crisis to the next as legislators have struggled to figure out a viable, cost-effective and palatable long-term solution to maintain over $1 billion in assets.

Some lawmakers, though, believe there’s finally legislative enthusiasm for a multi-pronged solution that will pay for hundreds of needed maintenance projects while generating ongoing revenue to maintain them.

Supporters of House Bill 3972 are proposing the creation of aneight-year state park maintenance plan that would allocate $350 million to fix things like leaking roofs, failing water and gas lines, cabins, roads, docks, cave-ins and bathrooms. It would be funded using money in the state’s Legacy Fund that contains surplus savings.

They’re also considering adjusting the cap on the amount of sales and use taxes that traditionally flow to parks for maintenance needs so that Oklahoma doesn’t end up in the same situation in the future.

Rep. Tammy Townley, R-Ardmore, who co-authored HB 3972, said increasing that cap could generate as much as $50 million. Due to budget problems in 2015, legislators began limiting parks’ capital maintenance funding to $10.3 million a year, which helped create the massive backlog and severely crippled the state’s ability to pay for repairs.

“If you don’t start (repairs) it’s going to be like the Capitol building,” Townley said. “(We’ll) let it fall down around you until we do something invasive and do a major plan of attack.”

Townley said there’s a water well that will shut down part of an Oklahoma town if it’s not replaced imminently.

There are water lines that are going to disable an entire park if they’re not replaced.

And cabins at Lake Murray State Park near Ardmore could be generating revenue, but are instead sitting vacant because they’re not being maintained.

State parks annually draw about 10 million visitors, who generate about $23.2 million in state and local taxes.

And while lawmakers have implemented other solutions to address the problem — most notably controversial parking fees — those have only made a small dent in the $350 million deferred maintenance backlog.

Parking fees have brought in only about $3 million a year, which is far from what’s needed, Zumwalt said.

Zumwalt said there’s never been a plan for how to manage Oklahoma’s park assets in a scheduled way.

“For decades, it has really been managed by emergency,” Zumwalt said. “The agency is always stuck in the moment of the emergency. It’s never really planning toward this is how we make sure that going forward we have less and less emergencies, and we’re able to maintain our assets.”

Last year, there were 28 emergencies having to do with infrastructure failure. Most of that could have been prevented if the agency had a regularly scheduled maintenance plan, she said.

The first project on the eight-year list is replacing the nearly century-old water treatment facilities servicing Greenleaf State Park in the eastern Oklahoma town of Braggs. That project alone will cost $5.25 million.

The second project on the list is repairing, renovating or replacing 55 cabins at Lake Murray State Park, which will cost $12 million. Repairing the cave-in at Alabaster Caverns State Park in northwest Oklahoma and fixing the cave entrance and stairs will cost $5.5 million.

In all, the legislation requires nearly 80 projects to be completed in the first year. Zumwalt said the plan assumes that lawmakers won’t add or eliminate any parks.

Rep. Jim Grego, R-Wilburton, said he doesn’t know why it’s taken state leaders so long to come up with a comprehensive plan, but he supports it.

He said a $350 million request to repair parks is “a big ask” for taxpayers.

But he believes it’s more palatable to voters if the repairs are spread out over eight years.

The legislation passed the state House with overwhelming support. It is now up for consideration in the Senate.

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

Janelle Stecklein is editor of Oklahoma Voice. An award-winning journalist, Stecklein has been covering Oklahoma government and politics since moving to the state in 2014.
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