Wedding, picnic rental funds preserved at Harkness, other parks

Despite the continuing state budget crisis, a proposal this spring to sweep half the revenues from rentals of state park facilities for weddings, picnic shelters and other facilities into the state’s general fund has been abandoned.

Dennis Schain, spokesman for the state Department of Energy and Environment Protection, said Monday that the state legislature and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who advanced the proposal in May to help close the state budget gap, agreed that the funds generated by the park rentals will be left for the parks to use on upkeep and improvements.

The biggest impact would have been on Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford, which would have lost $500,000 from the $1 million in its wedding account, and at Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme, which stood to lose $99,158 from its account. Fort Trumbull State Park in New London and Gillette Castle State Park in Lyme and East Haddam also would have lost revenues if the proposal had gone forward.

“We are very grateful that monies the parks earned will be kept for the parks,” said Pamela Adams, president of the Friends of Connecticut State Parks. “People really worked hard to keep that.”

Friends groups lobbied legislators and the governor’s office not to raid the funds, which would have provided about $1.02 million to state coffers. To approve the transfer, the legislature would have had to agree to undo a 2010 law that established a dedicated maintenance, repair and improvement accounts at parks that generate rental revenues.

Schain said that while the maintenance accounts funded by wedding and picnic rentals for Harkness, Rocky Neck and other indivudual parks were not taken, about $500,000 in an "administrative maintenance account" funded by other sources has been absorbed to help mitigate the state budget deficit.

Although the state began the new fiscal year without a budget, state parks are remaining open through the summer, though with some reduced services. Lifeguards are on duty at eight state beaches from Thursday through Sunday rather than seven days a week, and some museum hours have been trimmed, Schain said. Four small campgrounds have been closed, but campgrounds at 10 other parks remain open.

Adams said the Friends group is pleased parks are remaining open despite the budget woes. She urged park users to be mindful that with fewer staff, people need to do their part by taking their trash out.

She remains hopeful about prospects for a proposal supported by the Friends group to change the mechanism for funding state parks. In the current system, revenue from park admissions goes into the state general fund, and a portion is returned for the maintenance and staffing budget for parks. However, this funding has been too vulnerable to cuts and left parks without adequate support, parks advocates believe.

Under the change advanced by the Friends groups and others, a $10 “passport to parks” fee would be added to every vehicle registration fee when it is renewed every two years. In exchange, every vehicle with a Connecticut license plate would get free admission to state parks, and parks would keep the revenues generated by registration fees. The fund would produce about $14.3 million per year for the park, according to advocates. Current receipts from entrance fees generate about $6 million annually.

Adams said the plan is receiving support from lawmakers as a way of providing parks with a stable cash flow and adequate financial support.

j.benson@theday.com

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