TPWD Continues Park Upgrades, Faces Increased Costs in 2009 Budget

Tom Harvey, 512-389-4453,

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HOUSTON — Texans will continue to see benefits in 2009 from significant new funding for state and local parks, as well as new money to build a new East Texas fish hatchery and to help game wardens enforce wildlife laws and border security, all part of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department 2009 budget.

"We’re in the second half of a biennium in which we received significant increased funding from the legislature," said Carter Smith, TPWD executive director.  "In 2009, we plan to continue implementing better fiscal controls, capital construction initiatives, increased minor repairs and increased operating dollars for state parks, as directed by the legislature.

"We were extremely pleased in 2008 that we’ve been able to improve our state park facilities and public opportunities at a time when high gasoline prices had families seeking lower-cost summer vacation options closer to home," Smith added. "In 2009, we’ll start a new round of big-ticket bond repair projects, and that will leave a mark of improvement on our state that will be felt for generations to come. One of our biggest challenges as an agency in 2009 will be to continue to deliver conservation services in the face of steep cost increases for fuel and commodities."

Department financial experts estimate the cost of fuel for boats and vehicles increased by 44 percent in fiscal years 2007 and 2008, threatening to hamstring a highly mobile work force of game wardens, fisheries and wildlife biologists and parks employees. That has been addressed in part by increased conservation, including purchase of fuel-efficient vehicles, as well as employees not driving as much in some cases.

The high price of oil and other energy-related issues are affecting TPWD in many ways, from fuel for vehicles to fish feeds for state hatcheries. Fish feed costs have gone up 40 percent in the last two years, due in part to higher corn product prices driven by the shift to ethanol production.

Like all state agencies, TPWD gets authorization to spend money in the form of appropriations from the Texas Legislature. Appropriations come in two-year increments, and 2009 is the second half of the state’s 2008-2009 biennium, so much of TPWD’s financial profile is similar to last year.

The fiscal year 2009 capital and operating budget approved Aug. 21 by the TPW Commission totals $402.9 million, about the same as the previous year’s $405.8 million. The 2009 budget includes 272.6 million for salaries, related benefits and operating expenses, $21.6 million for grants, $101.1 million for capital projects and $7.6 million for bond debt service.

In 2007, the budget totaled $295 million, including $223.5 million for salaries, related benefits and operating, $12.6 million for grants, $52.4 million for capital projects and $6.5 million for bond debt service.

Increased park funding continues to be a primary feature of the department’s financial picture in 2009. The budget features the second year of an additional $15.8 million above 2007 levels for state park operating expenses and increased staffing. It also includes continued increases for park minor repairs and new staff and systems for improved financial accounting and auditing.

In the last legislative session, lawmakers also authorized additional funding for park land acquisition. In 2009, that includes $4.3 million to be spent for specific purposes at state parks like Palo Duro Canyon and Franklin Mountains, as directed by legislative riders. It also includes $9.3 million from the sale of TPWD’s Eagle Mountain Lake property near Forth Worth, which is earmarked to acquire and develop a new state park in North Texas.

The 2009 budget also includes $9.55 million in additional funding for local park grants TPWD awards across the state to cities, counties and other partners. In the last session, the legislature essentially restored this grants program, which for many decades has helped build or improve hundreds of city and county parks in all parts of Texas.

There is also an additional $7.4 million in freshwater fishing stamp funds to build a new East Texas fish hatchery in Jasper, with a groundbreaking for this project set for Aug. 27.

The 2009 budget includes an additional close to $850,000 for game warden operations connected with border security, a continuation of a new effort begun in 2008. It also includes an additional $1 million in state general revenue for game warden operations statewide. The budget will make possible a new Law Enforcement Division office in Laredo, to better coordinate and support South Texas and border enforcement.

New bond funding for major state park repairs is another big element of the 2009 budget, reflecting support not only from legislators but also from Texas voters who approved the Proposition 4 bond package in 2007. The 2009 budget includes $69.1 million in voter-approved bond funds for state park major repairs and improvements. That includes $25 million for the Battleship TEXAS and $44.1 million to fund dozens of state park critical repair projects set to start construction all across the state in mid-to-late 2009.

Earlier this month, the department’s Infrastructure Division garnered a record number of responses from design firms vying to plan bond-funded repair projects. By Nov. 25, the department expects to award design contracts. Meanwhile, the department will issue a solicitation for construction services Sep. 24.

The traditional sequence for such work is design-bid-build, but TPWD is implementing an innovative approach in which designers and builders will be hired separately, but will then collaborate together to refine plans before work begins. The upshot should be better cost estimates, and jobs that are completed quicker and with less disruption to park visitors once work begins.

The department’s bond repair plans got a major vote of confidence from an outside consultant earlier this year. Rider 30 in the recent legislative session required a private vendor to study whether TPWD’s proposed major repair projects will increase park attendance and/or generate additional revenue to cover costs. The consultant team of Fisher Heck Architects and Pros Consulting briefed TPW Commissioners on key findings, which were also shared  with various state leaders, including offices of the Governor, Lt. Governor, Speaker of the House, TPWD’s oversight committee chairs, the State Auditor’s Office and Legislative Budget Board.

The consultants found that the 40 parks slated for proposed capital projects hosted approximately 54 percent of all state park visitation. They said 37 percent of the repair and improvement projects will likely increase attendance and revenue, and that 40 percent will not likely increase attendance but are necessary to maintain current visitation. They pointed out that a number of projects were required to meet federal and state regulatory requirements, such as access for people with disabilities, and that others were needed to safeguard structures with historic value.