- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska’s state parks and recreational areas could see a new infusion of state cash for maintenance projects and upgrades.

Lawmakers voted 32-1 on Tuesday on a bill that would accelerate work on a $43 million backlog. The project list includes installing new water towers, septic systems, toilets and showers, and ensuring that facilities comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

“The sheer amount of basic infrastructure that Game and Parks is statutorily responsible for maintaining is very extensive, and most of it is out of date and out of compliance with federal law,” said Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, the bill’s sponsor. “This needs to be corrected.”

Nebraska has eight state parks, 64 state recreation areas and 11 state historical parks, and the system sees an estimated 12 million visitors annually.

“The bill provides us a funding source to help us attack that list of needs,” Nebraska Parks Division Administrator Roger Kuhn said Tuesday. “If we’re going to maintain our quality, a funding source is pretty critical to help us do that.”

The backlog at Chadron State Park, in northwest Nebraska, includes a water tower that needs to be replaced before its next five-year inspection and underground water pipes that have cracked, said assistant superintendent Jake Rodiek. The tower - which supplies all of the park’s water - barely passed its last inspection two years ago, Rodiek said, and state officials warned that it would likely fail the next one.

“We’ve patched it a couple of times to try to get by,” Rodiek said.

Rodiek said park officials are concerned that the underground water pipes will leak, which could erode several roads that are already scarred with cracks and potholes. Less pressing, but also important, are renovations to 22 cabins used by hunters and campers, he said.

The bill would rely on sales tax revenue from motor boats, personal watercraft and all-terrain and utility vehicles. Revenue would funnel into an account created for Game and Parks maintenance, starting in October. A new Game and Parks maintenance fund would receive about $4 million a year.

Lawmakers agreed to let the measure expire in five years as part of a compromise, so the state Game and Parks Commission would have time to pay for repair and renovations, without permanently disrupting the flow of tax revenue into the state’s general fund.

Lawmakers approved an increase in state park entrance-permit fees in 2011 to help pay for garbage service at the parks, tree-trimming, lawn maintenance, building and vehicle repairs and other upkeep.

Supporters of the increase argued that the state Game and Parks Commission had already reduced costs through staff cuts and by privatizing some park services.

The Game and Parks Commission announced in August that it would close nearly 30 state-run parks until next spring so employees could tackle maintenance projects. Some of the parks were kept open with help from local volunteers.

Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins said he opposed the measure because he believed that Game and Parks has mismanaged the money intended for parks. Bloomfield said some of the park land should also be converted into farmland, where it would help contribute to county tax coffers.

Two more votes are required before the bill is sent to the governor.

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The bill is LB814.

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