Friday, April 24, 2009

State Parks Need Funding. One State Parks Fund Has Record Resources. Can We All Get Together?

Our parks system is allegedly failing.
But we have a way out of it.
Chances are that you, like most Michiganders, don’t know what the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF)is. The fund is the repository for mineral and oil lease royalty payments, created in 1984 via a statewide vote. The fund is overseen by a board, which is composed of folks from conservation groups, the state DNR and a retired fellow named Bob Garner from Cadillac, whose yank comes via political contributions from both himself and his wife, numbering about $1,200, to Gov. Granholm. We should also note that prolific Republican contributor Frank Torre is on the board. He runs a landscape contracting firm in Pontiac. We supposed that paying into the system merits consideration, a sort of admission fee.
The board proposes spending, which is routinely rubber-stamped by state lawmakers.
The board meets six times a year with a poorly posted public meeting notice. But what goes on in the meetings deserve more attention, because more than $45 million in taxpayer dollars is doled out in the course of a year. In a state that is shouldering a $785 million budget deficit, this is some serious cash.
In December, the board held two meetings, one at 7 p.m. on the 2nd and then the next morning at 9 a.m. At stake was the distribution of millions of dollars. The first meeting included a pitch from a DNR bureaucrat, Vicki Anthes, who asked the board for $11 million to buy some primo Detroit River frontal property from a group called the Detroit River Conservancy, a tax-exempt group that is awash in money. In 2007, the Detroit River Conservancy claimed $80 million in net assets, and paid its president, Faye Nelson, a package worth $240,000 a year. And somehow, a grocery store clerk in Houghton, a mechanic in Petoskey and a computer tech in Three Rivers were supposed to think funding a dubious venture is one of the nation's most corrupt cities is a good idea. But these state residents probably didn’t know about the possibility, which is still pending.
As the meeting progressed, a Mr. Tom Bailey, who is executive director of the Little Traverse Conservancy made some comments regarding the economy and the need for economic stimulus, according to minutes of the meeting. Thanks to the constitutional protection of the MNRTF by the State of Michigan and how the program was created and crafted in the 1970s, Bailey noted, this year – and we presume he means 2009 - we will see the largest award of grant money in the history of the program – approximately $45 million.
Mr. Bailey continued by stating that this creates a ready-made economic stimulus for Michigan. Most of the $45 million will go into the real estate market, which is one of the most troubled segments of our economy. Twenty-five percent of the $45 million will go to community recreational infrastructure, creating jobs and projects for the communities that will pay dividends for generations as people have full access to our natural resources.
Mr. Bailey stated that we should ask the Legislature, not just for land conservation and recreation, but for the sake of our state, to pass the MNRTF bill as early in the upcoming session as possible so these dollars can go into the economy right away. He stated that Little Traverse Conservancy is willing to assist staff in any way possible.
Bailey is paid $93,000 a year to help oversee the Little Traverse Conservancy’s $65 million in net assets, per its 2007 tax form. Not so smart – we note that $7.4 million is invested in publicly traded securities. Bet that $7.4 million is a bit worn down today. His comment about sinking most of the $45 million into real estate – also not so smart. And somehow, he believes that the high and mighty mission of these overfunded endeavors is to create jobs, whatever that means.
The meeting went on with 18 people appearing to ask for money from the board. They all came bearing numbers and assuring that the money would be – like most public money – wisely spent.
The next morning, the group heard from Joe Frick, chief of the office of financial services at the Department of Natural Resources. He advised the board that “there is an unusually high amount of oil and gas revenue -- $92.4 million, credited to the MNRTF for 2008. One-third of the revenue is available to spend for acquisition, development, operating costs and payments in-lieu of taxes -- $30.8 million. MNRTF had $380 million to spend.
The board then proceeded to approve about $45 million in expenditures, including:
• $96,000 for disabled access to Rolling Hills Park in Washtenaw County;
• $255,100 for pool house improvements at Lion’s Field in Algonac;
• $1.982 million to expand Lake Lansing Park North in Ingham County
Which is fine in one regard – we have wonderful parks in Michigan, terrific green spaces and we should be willing to spend on such things. Normally. But today is not normal.
In the Detroit News story linked at the start of this blog, we are told that “A trust fund, approved by voters in 1994 to meet long-term infrastructure needs, is instead being tapped for operations and is nearly depleted.”
(But we do have money for new digs for at least one DNR office)
At any rate, someone missed a very public meeting. This is the opposite of what was said at the MNRTF gathering on Dec. 3.
But says Sen. Patty Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, chairwoman of the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee:
"The condition of our parks is embarrassing at best and abysmal at worst. If we don't do something, there will be closures of some of our state parks."
The proposed remedy is a higher vehicle registration fee.
But how about some legislation that would permit money from the trust fund to be transferred to our state parks rather than expanding an already sufficient park in Ingham County? Or perhaps we can tell these well-heeled conservancies to do it themselves, and, by the way, we’re in a recession and please cut those salaries and spend some of that money you already have in the coffers. Better yet, how about Sen. Birkholz propose legislation to amend the structure of the MNRTF and consider this an emergency.
This is the crime of a media depletion.; there is no one to cover these key meetings in which millions of public dollars are approved to spending. We will continue to look at these board, panels and committees and hopefully expose their activities in hopes of making a difference.
Detroit River Front Conservancy
MNRTF board minutes, 12/2008

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