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COLUMBIA – As the Missouri State Park system celebrates its centennial in 2017, it also faces an estimated backlog of $400 million in unfunded capital improvements and infrastructure needs.

The system attracts 18-20 million visitors each year, supports 91 parks and historic sites and ranks as one of the most heavily visited park systems in the country.

Susan Flader, one of the original founders of the Missouri Parks Association, helped implement the 1/10th of 1 percent parks and soils sales tax in the 1980’s.

However, during a financial crisis in the early 1990’s, the state cut general revenue funding for the parks system. It left the parks and soils sales tax to take care of funding for all staff, infrastructure and rehabilitation throughout the system.

“That has been an increasing burden over the years, because that sales tax was never intended to be used to actually operate the system,” Flader said. “We had general state revenue for that. Once it was taken away in the financial crisis, temporarily they said, it has never been returned.”

The decline of sales tax revenue after recent economic struggles resulted in even bigger funding deficits, while expenses for park infrastructure continued to grow. Flader said much of the infrastructure is 50-75 years old, requiring significant improvements.

“It’s the accumulated maintenance needs and the higher standard of visitor expectations in parks around the country,” Flader said. “It’s no longer enough to have a place to pitch your tent in a campground. You now have to have complete water and electrical hookups.”

Flader and the Missouri Parks Association said the first step to lowering the deficit should be the inclusion of the state park system on a new bond issue.

“The projects build up. Periodically you need a bond issue to deal with capital improvement projects,” Flader said. “You can’t have that many people using the facilities without maintaining them, improving them, upgrading them over the years. You simply have to have a source of funding.”

Unlike some of the other top state park systerms, Missouri has never had a bond issue specifically providing additional lands.

The community has shown support for parks funding in the past. The parks and soils sales tax passed with an 80 percent vote of support in 2016.

There was also an attempt to include the state parks a new bond issue in 2009, which ultimately did not come to fruition.

“The thing that is not understood is the fact that our legislators actually voted at night, late in the session, to delete the funding for state parks that had been included in the various iterations of the bond issue for eight years,” Flader said. “We need to get that money for state parks re-approved by the state legislature.”

Some legislators argue that state park land should be sold or growth and expansion should stop until the park system deficit lowers. Creation of a new bond issue also could also prove challenging with the recent budget cuts across the state.

Despite the current funding crisis, new Lt. Gov. Mike Parson told KOMU 8 News said he still plans to continue advocating for state parks and Missouri tourism.

“Parks provide Missouri citizens with a place to go and vacation not far from home. Not all Missourians can afford to take expensive out-of-state vacations,” Parson said in a statement. “The more our state parks are kept clean and maintained, the more visitors they will attract and more revenue Missouri takes in.”

Parson said tourism is Missouri’s second largest industry and draws more than 40 million visitors annually.

Flader hopes the new administration will protect the system’s right to provide state park growth for an expanding population.

“You need to further flesh out your system so that it represents all of the various natural and cultural values that best represent the state,” Flader said. “That doesn’t mean you need rapid growth, but it does mean you need to allow for at least some growth.”

The state parks system, a branch of the Department of Natural Resources, is currently going through transition with Gov. Eric Greitens replacing Jay Nixon, who was a strong supporter of state park expansion.

Seven parks opened under Nixon during the tenure of Missouri State Parks Director Bill Bryan. Bryan served for eight years before leaving the position less than a month after the Greitens’ inauguration. There is currently no permanent director in Bryan’s place.

The Missouri State Park system supports 56 percent of the buildings the state is directly responsible for maintaining and two-thirds of the water and sewer systems.

Flader said the park system has needs equivalent of small cities, but don’t receive the same financial support.

“The system brings in 26 dollars for every one dollar of funding received. Bennett Springs State Park gets 1 million people every year, it’s the same as a small city,” Flader said.

Even with mounting funding issue, that doesn’t change Flader’s pride for Missouri’s state parks.

“I feel wonderful as a Missourian knowing that our state parks represent who we are as a people so well,” Flader said. “There are very few states that have as representative, as well maintained and well managed system as Missouri does. It’s really something that we have that we can be proud of in this state.”