Lake Life


Purtis Creek facing 10 percent budget cut
By Pearl Cantrell
Monitor Staff Writer

PURTIS CREEK–If legislators don’t spare the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department from a mandatory 10 percent budget cut Gov. Rick Perry has ordered for all agencies, Purtis Creek will likely have to continue without a park police officer.
The post has been vacant for close to a year now. Park superintendent Justin Rhodes is in the process of filling it, but may have to reconsider if he is asked to cut his budget by another 10 percent. The park’s fiscal year runs from September to August.
“That’s $25,000 for us, or one full-time position,” he told The Monitor.
“It comes down to some hard choices – keep the electricity to run air-conditioning to trailer sites, or do without one full-time employee,” he added.
Budget cuts are nothing new, Rhodes said, but an additional 10 percent cut comes “when we have more people coming to our park, at a point where we can’t service them all (if staffing is cut further).”
Rhodes and his staff have worked steadily to increase the number of visitors with a view of being self-sufficient. One way was to get Wal-Mart to team up with the park to host the annual “Take a Kid Fishing Day.”
The 14-year-old event has seen a significant rise in attendance since the retailer joined three years ago. The event went from hosting about 100 kids to this year’s turnout of 244 kids. About 500 people were involved in the event this year, Rhodes reports.
The park’s annual Haunted House event drew 2,500 through the park gate last October, and its guided canoe trips sold out this season. With more staffing, an increased number of canoe trips could have taken place and more revenue generated, serving more people.
Last year, the Department ordered a hiring freeze, which left Purtis Creek with only two full-time employees. A full staff means five employees to serve the 1,500-acre park, which has 64 camp sites and hosts about 100,000 visitors a year.
The two-member staff necessitated closing the park two days a week, which changed this spring when the park returned to being open seven days, Rhodes said.
The park now has three full-time staff members, one of whom was obtained after her previous position at Doctor’s Creek Park in Cooper was eliminated when that park was forced to close.
Office manager Tina Overton lives 75 miles away, and stays in a camping trailer at the park during the week.
“You do what you have to do,” Overton said.
A second staff member maintains the park’s water and wastewater system, and then there’s Rhodes, who doubles as the patrolling security officer.
On weekends, the overnight population of the park averages 500, with an estimated 100 boaters using the lake, Rhodes said.
“We’ve had more visitors this year than before,” he added. “Visitation is up across the park service.”
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials say a 10 percent cut would force the closure of 18 state parks, with the focus on historical sites, which don’t draw that many visitors.
Since Purtis Creek isn’t an historical park, it is not being targeted for closure. The system was forced to close 27 parks last year.
Department executive director Robert Cook said last week that the state’s “biggest losers” likely would include the San Jacinto Battleground near Houston and the LBJ Ranch in Johnson City.
Unfortunately, those two particular parks aren’t good places for cutbacks, Cook testified to a special committee examining on-going shortfalls of the 600,000-acre park system.
The Texas State Railroad, operating the only historical train in Texas between Palestine and Rusk under the park system, is on the chopping block, threatening 60 jobs and a piece of Texas railroading history.
A plan to privatize the park would mean drastic increases in ticket prices, now at $17 for adults and free to children through the summer.
Purtis Creek Park has hovered near the break-even point of $269,000, bringing in $230,000 this past year, Rhodes reported.
For the past several biennial budgets, the state park system has been absorbing 5 percent budget cuts every two years.
These restraints have meant making due with aging equipment, vehicles and continuing deterioration of park facilities.
“We are using the original tractor that helped build the park in 1988. Just last week, we were forced to replace a lawnmower we’ve been using since 1988,” Rhodes said.
The tractor was new in 1976, he added.
During the park’s popular Haunted House, the tractor broke down during a hayride. “It breaks down about every time we use it,” he added.
The park also has one vehicle with more than 100,000 miles on it and a truck with 200,000 miles. Rhodes’ cruiser has 49,000 miles on it, he said.
Purtis Creek Park plays an important role in the area’s economy – bringing in 38,400 non-local visitors spending $327,427 in 2004, according to a study performed by Texas A&M University under Professor John Crompton.
Those expenditures multiply in the local economy, translating into $765,000 additional revenues and creating 18 jobs for the area.
Sales taxes collected on sporting goods are earmarked to support state parks. State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn’s office reports the tax would bring in about $100.6 million this year.
However, 12 years ago, lawmakers limited the amount parks could receive from the tax to $32 million, and the system actually gets only $20.5 million from that fund, with the remainder going into the general fund, it was reported.
Entry fees and concessions within the park raise another $32 million for the agency, park officials said.
The agency’s current budget is $56 million, generating a $6 million to $8 million deficit annually.
Texas ranks 49th among the 50 states in per capita spending on parks, while the state is ranked as the 8th largest economy in the world.
About 10 million people visit Texas parks every year.




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