Fort Knox deal first step down slippery slope to privatizing state parks, critics say

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
Posted April 10, 2012, at 5:41 p.m.

PROSPECT, Maine — While some in Maine — including the governor — are in favor of outsourcing management of the popular Fort Knox State Historic Site, others worry that the move would be the first step down a slippery slope to privatize all state parks.

“Do you really want to privatize state parks?” MaryAnne Turowski, the director of politics and legislation for the Maine State Employees Association, said Tuesday. “I think it’s a precursor to more. I think it opens the door for future considerations of privatization.”

Gov. Paul LePage is expected to sign a four-year contract by the end of the week between the nonprofit group the Friends of Fort Knox and the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, his spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said Tuesday.

The state will continue to own the 19th century fort that overlooks the Penobscot Narrows, but the day-to-day management of the seasonal site would be taken over by the Friends group. In exchange, they would receive 85 percent of the admission fees, according to Maine Department of Conservation Commissioner Bill Beardsley.

Last season, the Friends of Fort Knox had a 50-50 admissions fee split with the state, which totaled about $69,000 for each, according to state officials. The state’s share is deposited into the General Fund.

“Let’s give it a try, and see how it works,” Beardsley said. “There’s nothing beyond that. We’re not looking for a trend.”

He said that Maine parks do not have a “one-size-fits-all” management practice, with six different approaches that have been developed over the years.

“I’m not looking at privatizing or not privatizing,” he said.

The move at Fort Knox would save the state about $40,000, Will Harris, the director of the Maine Department of Conservation’s Bureau of Parks and Lands, said last week. Staffing and operations for Fort Knox costs about $110,000 annually, he said.

The Friends group has contracted with the state for several years to provide some services at Fort Knox. So far, those services have included collecting admissions fees, giving interpretive tours, running the gift shop and staffing the observation tower at the Penobscot Narrows Bridge. If the governor signs the new contract, those services will expand to include taking charge of the fort’s maintenance and operations management.

Harris said that visitors to the park should not notice any difference in their experience at the fort. He also said that no state employees will lose their jobs over the change.

Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, the lead Democrat on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, said he prefers to withhold judgement on the move until he sees the details in the contract. He has asked to see it a few times now, he said.

McCabe said the Legislature turned down an earlier effort to privatize the fort over ownership issues. According to Maine statute, the state can lease the operations of the fort with the consent of the governor and the commissioner of the Department of Conservation. The Legislature will not vote on the current plan.

But McCabe, who is still interested in park management, said that in the past, the state has been “very involved” with the Friends of Fort Knox.

“It was a good set of checks and balances,” McCabe said. “I’m not clear how that will work with the new contract.”

Efforts Tuesday to obtain the contract were unsuccessful. Bennett said that she wants LePage, who is out of state, to look at it before releasing it to the media.

“There’s nothing that we’re hiding in this,” she said. “We’re all about transparency.”

But not everyone is convinced. Turowski brought up the fact that the president of the board of directors of the Friends of Fort Knox is Carol Weston, a six-term state senator who now is working as the state director for the Maine branch of Americans for Prosperity.

The conservative advocacy group was founded with support from billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, and lobbies for lower taxes and less government regulation and spending.

Turowski suggested that privatizing the operations of a state historic site fits into the goals of Americans for Prosperity.

“This may be a unique situation. The Friends do great work. They’ve done a lot for the park over the years,” she said. “But what’s the next step? Is it some group that’s not a ‘friend,’ but is a management corporation? Does this open the door to possibilities we’re not even thinking about right now?”

Weston wrote in an email Tuesday afternoon that the Friends of Fort Knox board had discussed the possibility of taking on more responsibility to support the fort before she became a board member.

“This was a unanimous decision of a very diverse board to increase their support to the Fort and our partnership with the [Department of Conservation],” Weston wrote.

Other states, including New Jersey, have seen recent efforts to privatize some state-owned assets. Gov. Chris Christie last fall announced a long-term funding strategy that included leasing golf courses, privatizing park concessions and contracting lifeguard services at some parks.

He said that the key to keeping these parks and assets open was to keep them capable of generating self-sustaining revenue.

But McCabe said that the mission of Maine’s state parks isn’t exactly to operate as a business would.

“Our state park system relies on some parks doing better than others,” he said. “Each of our parks is a different experience.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/04/10/news/state/fort-knox-deal-first-step-down-slippery-slope-to-privatizing-state-parks-critics-say/ printed on April 19, 2014