Sunday, July 21, 2024

Audit says Louisiana state parks has $42M repair backlog, no master plan

by BIZ Magazine

(The Center Square) — Reduced general fund appropriations in recent years have forced Louisiana state parks to spend improvement funds on operations, creating a $42 million backlog of needed repairs.

The finding is one of several outlined in a report from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor released last week that examined how the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism’s Office of State Parks manages Louisiana’s 21 state parks and 16 historic sites.

“Prior to fiscal year 2010, OSP used (repair and improvement funds known as) 729 Funds according to state law in terms of spending 50% of the self-generated revenues on each park on that park’s improvements and repairs needs,” auditors wrote. “However, OSP’s annual state general funds have decreased 12.9%, from $19.4 million in fiscal year 2016 to $16.9 million in fiscal year 2022.

“As OSP received fewer state general fund dollars, the agency began relying more on self-generated revenues … to fund operations,” according to the report.

OSP maintains a list of needed repairs and improvements that totaled $14 million in March 2023, but “staff say this is only a list of projects that they can realistically complete based on current funding levels as the true amount needed for improvements to keep parks and historic sites operating at expected service levels is three times this amount (approximately $42 million),” the report read.

OSP generated $79.6 million in visitation revenue in fiscal years 2016 through 2022, with $60.7 million or 76% coming from cabins, premium RV campsites, and day-use admissions. Between 2016 and 2022 visitation revenue increased by 4.4% to $11.8 million in 2022. Non-visitation revenues, meanwhile, jumped 2,589% to $4.6 million in 2022, due in large part to temporary COVID-19 funds and other federal funding, leases and royalties, and oil spill funds.

State park visitation has decreased from 1.83 million in 2016 to 1.27 million in 2022, with the exception of an increase to 1.47 million in 2021 during the pandemic.

The LLA noted a 42% reduction in full-time staff between 2007 and 2022, from 494 positions to 261, has presented a challenge for administering parks. A large part of the staffing reductions stem from unaffordable benefit requirements for full-time workers tied to the Affordable Care Act, auditors wrote.

While OSP has found ways to maximize staff, such as cross-training park employees and sharing staff between parks, “the legislature may wish to consider increasing funding for interpretive and park ranger positions for OSP to operate in a more efficient and effective manner and to ensure the safety of park visitors,” according to the report.

Other findings pointed to a need for a master plan to “set priorities and determine where to allocate resources,” as well as a “formal process to document repair and improvement decisions,” the report read.

Additionally, the LLA suggests OSP evaluate fee adjustments and pricing strategies, ways to build on current revenue-generating agreements and public-private partnerships, and the development of a more cohesive marketing strategy to boost visitation and revenue.

Brandon Burris, OSP assistant secretary, agreed with the LLA’s findings in a letter to LLA Mike Waguespack on July 5 outlining how the agency is working to implement them.

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