2009-05-30 / Top News

Cut in Funding Challenges Upkeep of Historic Buildings, Commission Says

By Karen Gould

Upkeep of Fort Mackinac's historic buildings, some of Michigan's oldest structures, will be a challenge faced by the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, which will see $114,000 in state funding cut this year and additional cuts proposed for next year. The 7% cut in funding and a proposed additional 8% to 15% reduction in 2010 has left the Mackinac Island State Park Commission unsure about its ability to preserve and maintain its historic buildings, said Mackinac State Historic Parks Director Phil Porter at the commission's spring meeting in Mackinaw City Friday, May 22.

The reduction this year was included in a $304 million statewide budget cut proposed by Governor Jennifer Granholm, who, with the state legislature, is wrestling with a growing deficit, exacerbated by a plummeting national economy.

For now, the park commission has cut staffing at its six sites, and, after tapping into its trust fund to bridge this year's revenue shortfall, is seeking federal stimulus money for repairs to peeling paint, leaking roofs, and rotting stairways.

This year the commission will receive $1,476,000 from the state coffers, down from the $1.59 million it projected last fall when adopting its $6,361,648 budget for 2009.

Such cuts have become normal, and can be expected to continue as the state and national recessions show few signs of recovery anytime soon.

Since 2003, the state's general fund appropriation to the Mackinac Island State Park Commission has been cut by more than 25%. The reductions have severely reduced staffing levels and limited the commission's ability to care for and maintain historic structures, said Mr. Porter.

"What that means is we are at an absolute bare bones minimum in terms of our staff," he said. "On top of this cut, we have also received a mandatory sixday furlough for all of our civil service workers. That's 44 employees on our staff who have to take off six days between now and September 30, so we lose 264 man-days of work, about 2,000 man-hours of work. That is really devastating to us at the time we are open and running full season, running a seven-day a week, 14-to-15-hour operation."

Commissioners contend that the six sites comprising Mackinac State Historic Parks, which it oversees, provide recreation and education for the entire state, as well as neighboring states, and collectively attract 800,000 visitors a year. The benefits received by area businesses and state tax revenue are significant, commissioners argue.

"It's best to leave us alone so the rest of the state could maybe get more dollars back into its hands," Commissioner Barry Goodman suggested.

Commissioner Richard Manoogian called the budget cuts "negative economics," and Commissioner Dennis Cawthorne agreed.

"We are the economic engine for the Straits area," Mr. Cawthorne contended.

Discussed by the state budget office for 2010 is an additional 8% cut in state funding for all departments, which would lower the state's general fund appropriation to the park commission to $1.357 million. The Senate has begun discussion by looking at a 15% reduction, which if approved, could lower the appropriation to $1.24 million.

"These are very, very scary and dramatic numbers," Mr. Porter told commissioners. "If we get cut to that level, we are going to have a very difficult time achieving our mission of protecting, preserving, presenting Mackinac State Historic Parks."

Figuring in inflation, Mackinac State Historic Parks is operating with $1 million less funding than seven years ago, said Mr. Porter.

"We have long term maintenance problems where we have buildings that are some of the most historic buildings in Michigan that are literally falling apart in front of our eyes," he told commissioners. "Once we were cut, we didn't have the funds necessary to keep up with our ongoing maintenance."

To meet the latest $114,000 cut, some seasonal staff positions are not being filled, overtime has been cut, and contractual services and purchases have been reduced, reducing costs $44,576. To cover the rest, commissioners transferred $70,000 from its trust fund interest account. Commissioners already used $109,012 from the trust fund this year when it adopted its budget, and only about $18,000 is left in the account.

The commission is seeking $587,780 in federal stimulus money.

Commissioners also increased some fees at Friday's meeting, including those for the use of its British Landing dock and for motor vehicle permits.

Last month's budget cut impacted all state agencies, with most receiving a 4% drop in funding. The measure was an effort by the governor to eliminate a projected $1.25 billion state budget deficit and also requires all state employees to take six furlough days.

Some items in all departments, like workers compensation, could not be cut and a portion of the burden of accounting for them fell to the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, which is why it was assigned a 7% budget reduction, while other state agencies received a 4% cut, said Mr. Porter.

In February, the Governor announced the Department of History, Art, and Libraries will be eliminated and that the Mackinac Island State Park Commission will be shifted back to the Parks and Recreation division of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), where it once was. Legislative committees assigned to the DNR won't be familiar with park issues and will need to be reeducated, said Mr. Porter.

"We need to reach out and sway new people," agreed Mr. Cawthorne, "which isn't particularly easy in a term limited environment."

The commission awaits an executive order from the governor with details on the transition and, in the meantime, park staff has met with the Department of Natural Resources to begin the transition.

Commissioners also plan to use their connections with legislators, state executives, and business leaders to plead their case to recapture needed funding, and will look for new revenue sources. They agreed it will be a tough battle because all state departments are seeing funding reductions.

Mr. Porter was directed to provide a copy of his testimony before the Michigan House and Senate to use as a reference, and to compile a list of services that will be impacted if the park receives more budget reductions.

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