Gov. Nikki Haley's instinct is correct: South Carolina's state parks system should strive to be even more self-sufficient. But her insistence that the parks generate enough revenue to cover all operating expenses by the end of 2013 is unrealistic and potentially counterproductive.
On one hand, government agencies have a fiduciary responsibility to be good stewards of public money. It follows that the parks system -- a division of the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism -- should take advantage of any efficiency that saves money or allows it to be better used.
On the other hand, state parks aren't hamburger franchises. Part of the rationale for them is to preserve natural and historic assets and to provide recreational and educational opportunities at a price that makes them accessible to all. The parks were established to provide a service, not generate money.
In other words, it is one thing to run parks efficiently; it is another to run them profitably.
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As Beaufort County's Hunting Island State Park demonstrates, some parks do make money. Hunting Island collects about $2.8 million annually, enough to cover its operating expenses, with about $1 million left to help other parks. Myrtle Beach and Huntington Beach parks also consistently make money.
In addition, the state system overall has come a long way in its bid for self-sufficiency. It covered 83 percent of its expenses last year, up from just 66 percent in 2002. The state government's contribution to park operations has shrunk from $8 million to $4 million during that period, which spans a recession.
But zeroing out that contribution over the next two years could entail unintended consequences.
The goal might tempt PRT officials to close small, rural facilities -- for example, Sergeant Jasper State Park in Jasper County or Lake Warren State Park in Hampton County -- that offer little revenue potential.
The state might eliminate some parks' educational programs to reduce expenses.
Fees at profitable parks, such as Hunting Island, could be increased, shifting more financial burden for the entire system to the patrons of parks already paying their own way.
The state might find ways to flood parks with more visitors than they are equipped to handle, increasing short-term revenue, but causing long-term maintenance and management problems. (As it stands, state parks need about $154 million in repairs and upgrades, including $3.75 million to replace water and sewer systems at Hunting Island.)
According to a PRT report to Haley, only two state park systems in the country -- Vermont and New Hampshire -- broke even in 2009, and only one other covered more than 90 percent of its operating expenses.
Joining their ranks would be laudable, but only if South Carolina's park system continues to fulfill its mission to provide recreation and preserve the state's cultural, historical and natural resources.