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Parks' budget scrutiny

The national parks aim to reduce costs

The national parks aim to reduce costs

April 30, 2006|By CANDICE BOSELY

In bureaucratic-speak, it's called "core operations analysis."

But what does a directive regarding national parks and their budgets really mean, specifically for the hundreds of thousands of people who will visit three local national parks this summer?

Not much, a National Parks Service spokeswoman said.

Officials at all of the nation's parks, including Antietam National Battlefield, Harpers Ferry (W.Va.) National Historical Park and the C&O Canal National Historical Park, are being asked to scrutinize their budgets and try to reduce their fixed costs so that they make up 80 percent to 85 percent of their total budgets.

Fixed costs include salaries and utilities, NPS spokeswoman Elaine Sevy said.

Despite some assertions or worries to the contrary, the required budget analysis does not mean parks' individual budgets will be cut by 20 percent, Sevy said.

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"Let me get this straight: This is not a budget cut," Sevy said from her Washington, D.C., office, adding that the initiative also is not paving the way for future budget cuts.

"It's pretty challenging times right now," Sevy said. "Park budgets are tight, and we expect them to remain so."

As a part of the budget analysis, parks essentially turn their eyes on themselves.

"It's to try to help parks when fixed costs are, maybe, approaching 90 percent," Sevy said, a scenario that does not leave parks officials with much additional money for projects they hope to pursue.

Any savings generated by the budget analysis will stay within each park.

Still, Sevy said that in her 18 years with the Park Service, budgets have "always been an issue of concern."

"It's not all rosy out there," she said.

The national 2007 NPS budget calls for a $100.5 million reduction - money that will be removed from a state grant program the NPS oversees. Overall, though, Sevy said that same $2.2 billion budget includes a $23 million increase for operations.

Each of the superintendents for the three national parks in the Tri-State area was familiar with the "80 percent" idea. Each also was notably upbeat when discussing the concept.

Conservative outlook will help

J.W. Howard, superintendent at Antietam National Battlefield, said the park intended to begin its core operations analysis on April 21.

"We have to go back in and list everything we do," Howard said, explaining how the analysis will work.

Tasks performed by the park are assigned a monetary and a personnel value. For example, the park might look at "painting," and then list how much it costs to perform necessary painting projects and how many employees perform those tasks.

All of the park's tasks then need to match up with the park's budget and number of employees.

In May, during a three-day workshop, all of the tasks will be examined with the park's mission in mind.

"It's a daunting task, and it's a real eye-opener," Howard said. "It'll show us where we're spending our money."

The ultimate goal, Howard said, is to determine what's not a core task with regard to the park's official mission, which is: "The Secretary of the Interior is authorized to acquire such lands and interests ... to preserve, protect and improve the Antietam Battlefield ... to assure the public a full and unimpeded view thereof, and to provide for the maintenance of the site (other than those portions thereof which are occupied by public buildings and monuments and the Antietam National Cemetery) in, or its restoration to, substantially the condition in which it was at the time of the battle of Antietam."

As for tasks that do not fall into the realm of the mission statement?

"That would fall out into the 20 percent," Howard said. "The idea is that in a typical park, 80 percent of what you do is core and 20 percent is nice."

But, Howard said, "Some parks may have that 20 (percent), but I don't think we do here."

Antietam has tried to operate on a conservative budget. Ideally, 80 percent of an agency's budget will be for personnel - until this year, the park has kept salary costs below 80 percent of its total budget. This year, Howard said, salary costs make up 81 percent of the park's total budget.

"We've managed very conservatively over the years, and I think that's going to help us over the long run," Howard said.

Antietam is authorized to have 40 full-time employees, but Howard said he currently has five vacancies and expects a retirement to create a sixth vacancy in June.

Howard said he purposely leaves a few vacancies unfilled to give the park some flexibility when it comes to budgeting.

Seasonal employees, including college students, are hired to help fill the gap. They perform day labor, freeing other employees to do other tasks.

With all of that said, Howard said he still worries about what implications the core analysis might have on the park and the services it provides to visitors.

"All bets are off," he said, if another serious hurricane season affects the country or should another military operation begin, since both would require federal funding.

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