State Park repairs prompt debate

At Fontainebleau State Park near Mandeville, 12 waterfront cabins that accommodated thousands of tourists a year, now are riddled with mold and broken dishes. Vandals visit to drink beer and destroy what nature didn’t.

Hurricane Isaac pummeled the park and sent four to five foot waves crashing into the cabins.

Parts of the boardwalks connecting the cabins collapsed. Mold crept up the walls and studded the sheets with black polka dots. Water ruined the leather couches.

Repairs still are on hold more than a year later even though Fontainebleau is the so-called cash cow of the state park system. The deluxe cabins rented for $150 a night during the peak season, generating thousands of dollars a year.

The state of the cabins at Fontainebleau are at the heart of a political dispute that touches the entire state park system.

Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne contends projects are piling up because Gov. Bobby Jindal and legislators made a practice of using a state park repair fund to pay the parks’ daily operational expenses. Now, he said, the fund is dry.

The Jindal administration counters that the fund routinely had millions of leftover dollars each year and that state construction dollars can be used for repairs.

Statewide, the backlog of repair and improvement projects at Louisiana’s state parks and historic sites stands at $20.4 million. Some of the projects are designed to enhance the state park system, such as adding ziplines and pavilions. Other projects are categorized as necessary because of health and safety concerns, such as a deteriorating ramp at Bayou Segnette State Park in Westwego.

Grand Isle State Park needs a new main water line. Plaster is crumbling at Audubon State Historic Site’s 192-year-old Oakley Plantation near Jackson. Campsites at Fairview-Riverside State Park need to be insulated from the Tchefuncte River’s floodwaters. Leaks are springing up at Hodges Gardens near Many.

Admission fees and cabin or campsite charges from state parks and historic sites go into a repair and maintenance fund that is supposed to take care of upkeep. Jindal and legislators have used $34 million from the fund in recent years for operational needs rather than repairs. Money historically intended for maintenance now is being used for the park system’s daily expenses.

Dardenne, who oversees state parks and historic sites, said the fund is down to nothing. Sooner or later, he said, a state park likely will close its gates because a repair bill won’t be able to be paid.

“I’m frustrated and concerned … I hope we don’t reach the point where we have to close state parks,” Dardenne said.

Jindal said in a prepared statement that the maintenance fund had leftover dollars in prior years and that he will work with Dardenne to fund repairs through the state construction budget.

Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, the governor’s chief financial adviser, said more than $6 million in construction funds will be made available for the state park system this budget year. She said decisions were made because the governor wanted to protect funding for higher education and health care during tough budget years.

Dardenne said the fact remains that he was unable to put the cabins at Fontainebleau State Park quickly back into commerce because he lacked the necessary repair funding. With a more robust maintenance fund, he said he could have made repairs and then reimbursed the money with storm assistance or insurance payments that are slow in coming. “The fact that the fund is down to zero prevents us from doing ongoing repairs and maintenance,” Dardenne said.

Louisiana’s state park system includes 22 state parks and 17 historic sites. They crisscross the state, from the Indian mounds at Poverty Point in the northeastern corner to the lagoons and piney forest of Sam Houston Jones State Park near Lake Charles. The system includes forts, plantation homes, gardens, trails and fishing piers.

In what has become an annual pitch, Dardenne appears before legislators and asks them to spurn the governor’s suggestion of using maintenance dollars for operations. Legislators routinely reject his request although some sympathy exists.

This year, the Legislature adopted language that added a new priority for the use of the state park repair fund. Operations now are listed along with general repairs, new facilities, maintenance and property acquisition.

Nichols said the change was made as a cautionary measure to clarify the law. Dardenne, who always maintained that the use of the repair fund for operations defied state law, accused the administration of backing the change to justify the past and legalize the future.

State Rep. Jim Fannin, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said he tried and failed to erase the change in language. Fannin, R-Jonesboro, said he hopes he can reverse the change next year because he shares Dardenne’s concerns about how the repair fund is being used.

“I understand the budget. My position was then, and is now, that it would be best served for the original intent,” he said.

Kay White, of Woodworth, visited Grand Isle State Park with her spouse over Labor Day weekend. She said they found closed bathrooms, caution tape, overflowing trash cans and flooded trails.

Among the projects on the backlog list for Grand Isle are better surfacing for trails and a renovated dump system.

White, who lives near a national recreation trail, said she looks forward to revisiting Grand Isle State Park after changes are made.

“I don’t know if there is a money issue or getting staff that loves it so much and are so proud of it that they want to see it clean and in working order. There are great state park apps that are extremely useful, but if the park isn’t in good shape when you get there, word of mouth will kill it,” she said.