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On a Tight Budget: Water Quality, State Parks, and Public-Private Partnerships

Good afternoon, and welcome back to our Sense of Community series. I’m Jennifer Moore. All this week, we’re looking at how our community is being affected by state budget cuts.

For this piece, KSMU originally had hoped to focus on how state budget cuts were affecting the enforcement of clean water, soil and air regulations. However, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources said it could not provide an interview with a specialist in these areas, nor a written statement on it.

Instead, DNR referred us to the State Parks director Bill Bryan. Bryan said he’s not aware of an instance where enforcement has suffered because of the economic recession, and that enforcement of clean air and water laws remains a high priority for the department.

One person who’s in the know about water quality—both in the Ozarks region and on the Jeff City scene—is David Casaletto. He’s the executive director of the Ozarks Water Watch Foundation. That’s a not-for-profit organization that keeps an eye on the water quality of Beaver, Table Rock, Taneycomo and Bull Shoals Lakes, as well as the rivers and streams that drain into those bodies of water.

"I haven’t noticed any water quality problems due to budget cuts yet,” he said.

He says that’s mostly because the work that’s being done now on water quality has been appropriated in previous budgets.

"The regulatory activities for water quality are mandated. And so, those pretty well have to continue, and they are still being funded. And the water quality efforts through different water quality organizations and different communities are still ongoing, because those grants and different projects were funded in previous cycles.

As we get closer to summer, some Missourians might be wondering how state parks will be affected—many states have looked at closing parks due to budget cuts, including Arizona, which is considering shutting down over half its state parks permanently.

But Bill Bryan, director of Missouri State Parks, says the focus in the Show-Me State has been on keeping the parks open—all of them.

Missouri’s State Parks don’t get any money from the state’s general revenue budget—that’s because citizens have overwhelmingly voted to fund the parks instead through a sales tax, which pays for 75 percent of the state parks’ budget.

Since sales tax revenues have been down due to the poor economy, Bryan says the department has had to make some layoffs, and to leave some vacant positions open, for now.

“When the times get tough, people get great benefits from spending time outdoors. And we had to make a very difficult choice on how to provide that service and meet that need for Missourians. And one of the adjustments we had to make was in our staffing,” Bryan said.

It’s also trying to find ways to become more efficient, Bryan says.

“For example, we’ve created some management units. We may not need a backhoe in every park. It may be adequate that we have a backhoe and an operator located on a regional basis, where they can be at Stockton State Park one day for a project, and they can be at Roaring River State Park later that week for a project, and then they can go over to Table Rock and work on something," he said.

Bryan says the state parks have also re-evaluated how many hours they can be open, including here in the Ozarks.

"At Table Rock Lake, we’ve had to do the same things we’ve done everywhere else: we’ve looked at the times that we need to have the most staff on duty, and we’ve made adjustments. For example, we know that on a Friday, we’re going to be busy because people are coming into the campground. But we also know, experience has taught us, that on a Wednesdays, for example, we’re not quite as busy. So we’re making some staffing decisions that allow us to better utilize our staff to meet our customers’ expectations at the times when we’re the busiest," he said.

Another innovative way the Division of State Parks is able to keep the parks thriving without breaking the bank is through its State Parks Youth Corps: the program gives jobs to Missourians between the ages of 17 and 21, putting them to work blazing park trail, roofing buildings, painting, and landscaping. The money to pay them comes out of federal stimulus money for job skills training for young people.

Other departments and agencies are really trying to make better use of technology.

Aaron Jeffries is the assistant to the director, governmental relations with the Department of Conservation.

"Take facebook for example: we’ve got a great facebook site that has a lot of interaction with citizens and department staff, a new e-permit system that will allow to purchase hunting and fishing licenses from their home computer," Jeffries said.

E-permits will end up saving the department about a half a million dollars a year once it fully implements that system, Jeffries says.

Reporter Standup: Another thing the Department of Conservation has done to become more efficient is to rely more on private businesses and organizations—Ducks Unlimited, the NRA, and businesses like the one I’m standing outside of now—Bass Pro Shops in Springfield. Bass Pro became a big supporter of the department’s Share the Harvest program. That’s where the state subsidizes the cost of butchering and processing deer killed by hunters, and gives that meat to food pantries across the state. And it’s partnerships like this on that have allowed the public and private sectors to join hands in this time of financial hardship, all for a common good. Join us tomorrow morning at 7:30 when our Sense of Community Series on the effects of state budget cuts continues. For KSMU’s Sense of Community Series, I’m Jennifer Moore.