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OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma officials improperly valued state park assets, prioritized the investment of millions of taxpayer dollars into assets that the public doesn’t particularly care about, and used public dollars to subsidize the losses suffered by a private restaurant chain, a fiscal oversight analysis found.

Officials with the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency, or LOFT, also found that a lot of the questionable decisions started after lawmakers in 2019 shifted the bulk of state park oversight power to an executive director and granted that official sole power to acquire, lease or divest state property, effectively making multi-million dollar decisions unilaterally without the oversight of a citizen-comprised commission.

Over the past two years, leaders at the state’s Tourism and Recreation Department have prioritized revitalizing crumbling lodges and restaurants, spending over $16 million on state park lodge restaurants and over $20 million in bond funds on state park lodges, LOFT found.

Park visitors, meanwhile, have reported that their Top 3 most important priorities were RV camping areas, hiking and cabins. Restaurants were ranked at the 12th most important; lodges were unranked.

LOFT officials said that while self-sufficiency may not be the goal of Oklahoma’s park system, the amount of revenue a park generates relevant to operational costs is a metric of financial health and operational performance. They recommended that lawmakers clarify their vision for the state park system, provide additional oversight of expenditures of over $1 million, and require a new strategic planning process.

State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, said that based on the analysis, lawmakers without a doubt need to rethink how they’re overseeing tourism and recreation and not invest all the power with one individual.

“Obviously that’s an area that we have not done a very good job in because I think everybody at the table yesterday, either Democrat or Republican or whatever, was shocked at some of the expenditures and how much money we’ve sunk into areas that may not be the best use of taxpayer dollars,” Pemberton said.

Park officials, though, contend that they’re grappling with decades of legislative funding neglect that have left billions in state assets crumbling. They said they’re not building things like lodges and restaurants, but merely investing in repairing the failing structures, which in some cases sit in the middle of state parks in unusable condition. They have rebuilt public restrooms at state parks, but only to replace those that no longer work.

Cabins, RVs and lodges bring in the highest sales totals of $15.34 million, but lodges and cabins are also the most expensive assets to renovate, upgrade and maintain, the agency said.

“To come in and say the existing infrastructure shouldn’t be maintained because it would add to its value is counter-intuitive, said Jerry Winchester, the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department executive director.

LOFT argued that park officials continue to improperly value their assets.

For instance, LOFT officials said that Quartz Mountain and Roman Nose state parks both have lodges. Quartz Mountain has six times the number of rooms, yet both are assigned the same replacement cost of $19.45 million. The expenditures on restaurants at several state parks exceeded the state replacement cost of the restaurants themselves, sometimes multiple times over, the oversight office found.

LOFT recommended that lawmakers freeze capital expenditures for the parks until it completes an asset inventory. Park officials said it would cost between $850,000 to $1.25 million and take over a year to complete.

State park leaders, meanwhile, contended in a written response that they partially agreed that improperly valued assets are driving a $19.3 million request for increased funding, but noted that proper industry guidelines were used to determine the estimated costs of the assets.

“No doubt that we’ve allowed too much of our stuff to run down, we need to repair it, but it also needs to have a proper value to it,” said state Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, who chairs the state Senate appropriations committee, on Friday.

He questioned the LOFT’s finding that park officials entered into contracts that guaranteed no loss for a private restaurant chain as well as covered operational fees. Those agreements “have come as a high cost into tourism,” and cost taxpayers millions, he said.

Winchester said when parks operated three of the original restaurants, they lost about $1.6 million annually, so state park officials knew that whoever operated them would do so at a loss. When they put the restaurant contracts out to bid, they knew it would be problematic to treat them as a normal concession business because nobody would bid.

Thompson said he also plans to dig deeper into the tourism and recreation department’s finances. He agreed with LOFT’s assessment that there’s a lack of oversight of large expenditures.

“I don’t think that one person ought to be allowed to make multimillion dollar decisions without consultation from somewhere,” Thompson said. “What I think is that the Legislature really needs to take our responsibility as we should and make sure we are also a part of that oversight.”

Pemberton, the Muskogee senator, said Friday that perhaps the fact that people aren’t eating at the restaurants is proof that they’re not going to parks to eat, but instead to do things like camp and hike.

He said park officials contended restaurants are necessary because some state parks are located 10 miles from the nearest restaurant. Pemberton said he lives 10 miles from Muskogee, but that doesn’t stop him and his wife from going to town to eat at a restaurant.

Oklahoma’s park lodges, meanwhile, haven’t been viable for years, yet park officials are investing tens of millions to bring them back, Pemberton said.

“It’s not good optics when you’re spending that kind of money,” Pemberton said. “Are you throwing good money after bad? That’s my question.”

State Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, said she’s concerned that the LOFT report tied some of the questionable and perhaps not defensible expenses back to a time where the Legislature gave control over to the governor and turned the oversight commission into an advisory body. The commission hasn’t met since January 2020, she said.

“I’m deeply concerned, I think taxpayers are very concerned about some of the contracts that have been signed, and some of the expenditures that have been undertaken at our state parks,” Kirt said.

She said the analysis found that the agency’s funding priorities are “out of alignment with public surveying about (what) people want in their state parks.”

They want recreation and access, yet officials are spending all their money on restaurants.

“I think that that misalignment is a huge challenge even if the expenditures were within appropriate purchasing laws,” Kirt said. “And I think we have to question whether it’s following the purpose that was outlined for those monies.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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