“DeSoto would be on that list and could face reductions [in staff] and facility closures."”
A budget battle between Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and legislators could spell closure for 15 of Alabama's 22 state parks, including two close to Chattanooga.
Last week, Alabama State Parks Director Gregory M. Lein issued a statement to state park employees that makes dark predictions if lawmakers carve money from the parks budget that is 80 to 90 percent funded by customer fees.
"In recent weeks we were notified of the legislature's intent to transfer $11.4 million of funds from the Conservation Department budget for the 2016 budget year," Lein wrote, noting the money would fund other government services under the state general fund.
"We suffered by relying on our reserve funds and the resourcefulness of our employees, however, our reserve funds and practical options have been exhausted," he said.
Gov. Robert Bentley said it will be lawmakers who close state parks -- and slash other state services -- if they fail to approve new revenue for the budget.
Bentley spoke Monday at Guntersville State Park, a place he called one of the most beautiful in the state. In addition to state parks, Bentley said mental health treatment, services for children, troopers and "everything that is funded by the General Fund" will face cuts.
He said the state faces a "real crisis" with its budget.
Bentley contends that state taxes must be increased or adjusted to raise enough money to fund public education; to keep state services such as parks operating; and to avoid filling gaps with one-time revenue sources or by borrowing.
According to Bentley's website and The Associated Press, the governor has proposed a budget that includes $541 million in new revenue to answer a $700 million shortfall. Legislators are resistant to any new taxes. The governor's budget includes eight revenue-increasing options derived from corporate income taxes, financial institution excise taxes, insurance premium taxes, public utilities license taxes, individual income taxes, automobile sales taxes, auto rental taxes, and cigarette and tobacco taxes.
District 24 Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-DeKalb County, says Lein is jumping the gun while legislators still are working on the budget and the session is only at the halfway mark.
"He's trying to pressure us into passing tax increases," Ledbetter said.
The General Assembly session ends June 1, and Alabama's budget year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.
Lein observed that 2014 was state parks' 75th anniversary.
An "emergency operation plan" will kick in at the end of the month in phases if parks are forced to cut back, Lein said. If the parks budget takes a cut this time, closures could start May 1, he said.
According to Lein's remarks last week to WHNT News 19 in Huntsville, Ala., seven of the nine state parks in Northern Alabama are among the 15 on the potential closure list, including DeSoto State Park and Lake Guntersville State Park.
Monte Sano State Park in Huntsville and Cathedral Caverns State Park in Woodville are among the seven statewide to remain open, Lein told WHNT.
That May 1 list doesn't include DeSoto State Park in Fort Payne, according to Ken Thomas, superintendent at the park nearest to Chattanooga, but DeSoto is among those on the June 1 list for phase II cutbacks and DeSoto facilities and employees could feel the pinch.
"DeSoto would be on that list and could face reductions [in staff] and facility closures," Thomas said. He has stayed in touch with local lawmakers who maintain the discussion "is far from over."
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.