State Park plans still in flux
By LPR Staff
In a split vote on Tuesday evening, the Lockhart City Council decided to move forward with talks with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, declining to make an immediate decision as to whether to take over operations of the Lockhart State Park.
At the state level, legislators are grappling with a budget crunch that promises to re
sult in deep cuts to most departmental budgets, including cuts to the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife (TPWD). In an attempt to maintain services while offsetting those cuts, TPWD has opened discussions with local governments to discuss the possible takeover of several state parks, Lockhart State Park among them.
Last week, Lockhart Mayor Ray Sanders and City Manager Vance Rodgers, along with County Judge Tom Bonn and County Commissioner John Cyrier, met with Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority Director Oscar Fogle, State Senator Glenn Hegar and two representatives of TPWD to discuss the ramifications of such a takeover.
According to figures Rodgers presented to the council on Tuesday, the Lockhart State Park currently operates at an annual loss of greater than $325,000. However, he noted that all parks within the state park system are reported to operate at a loss, according to the Department.
“I left the meeting with the impression that they very much want to keep the park open, and that six of the seven cities approached about taking over their state parks have said ‘no,’” Sanders told the council. “[Parks] are never going to operate in the black, just like any other public services – but they can narrow the gap, and we need to figure out how to do that.”
Ideas for narrowing that gap include the possibility of increasing usage and green fees, expanding camping areas, and finding ways to cut operational costs.
However, as forthcoming as TPWD has been about the overall costs to operate the park, many questions linger about the day-to-day operations, as well as the process of actually transferring the park, should the city decide to take over.
Though it is rumored that the original deeds executed in the 1930s call for the land to revert to the previous owners if the property ceases to operate as a state park, City Attorney Peter Gruning said the legal answers to those questions were unclear.
“Neither [the City of Lockhart nor Caldwell County] ever owned the land,” he said. “They just paid for it. The contracts were signed in 1934 or 1935, and I have not been able to locate them in the Caldwell County property records.”
While he speculated that the original contracts stipulated that the land might be parceled off to the city, the county and the heirs of the original landowners, Gruning said he was not comfortable advising the council about those issues until he has the opportunity to find and review the records.
Councilmember Lew White and Mayor Pro Tem Paul Gomez were adamant against the city taking control of the park, citing concerns about the operational costs and the city’s own budget concerns.
“I for one will not ask my taxpayers to support an endeavor that we know is a money loss,” Gomez said. “I would let the park be closed before I go to the citizens and ask them to raise their taxes so we can support an endeavor that’s losing $400,000 a year.”
Additionally, Councilmember John Castillo said he could not support the idea of taking over the park until issues of the transfer and funding the operations had been clarified.
It was unclear, as of Tuesday evening, whether the City of Lockhart would receive any financial incentive from the state for taking over operations, or whether there would be upfront costs for purchase of the land.
Councilmember Richard Banks made an impassioned plea on behalf of the park, telling his fellow councilmembers that it is the responsibility of the city, the county and the community to keep the park going.
“Only $95,000 [of the state’s current budget allocated to the Lockhart State Park] is to operating and another $90,000 to minor repairs,” he said. “I am confident that this city could operate that park as well, if not better, than parks and wildlife because we are not limited by the rules of a state agency.”
Banks noted the City Parks Department’s current staff of seven is the same size as the Lockhart State Park’s operational staff, and said the city could therefore save the bulk of the budget on personnel costs alone.
“If they are foolish enough to close that park, I think that the city should take it and work with the county to make it work.”
Councilmember Juan Mendoza was largely silent during the discussion, and Councilmember Angie Gonzales-Sanchez, an employee of TPWD, opted to abstain from the conversation and the vote to avoid an appearance of a conflict of interest.
Two members of the community spoke in favor of the park, both asking the council to consider not only the financial aspects of a park takeover, but also the social and community gains that stand to be realized if the city opts to take over the park.
White initially moved to decline the Department’s request that the city take over operations of the park, but his motion failed 3-3.
Banks then moved that the discussion be tabled, until the council’s second meeting in April, to allow for additional time for city staff to research the proposition, collect community input and find answers to the concerns about the property transfer, financial aspects and other issues regarding a possible takeover.
Banks’ motion passed 4-2, with both Gomez and White voting against.
In other business, the council asked Rodgers to draft a proposed ordinance preventing drivers from “texting in any mechanical mode of transportation.”
In recent years, the dangers of texting while driving have become more evident, and most members of the council have either witnessed, or heard anecdotal tales of fatal or near-fatal traffic accidents caused by a driver sending a text message behind the wheel.
Several surrounding cities have enacted similar ordinances, some more strident than others, and the Texas Legislature has also been eyeing possible state laws limiting the behavior.
Any use of celluarl phones is already banned in Lockhart area school zones.
Citing concerns about public safety, the council voted to have Rodgers bring forth an ordinance banning texting while driving overall, and the measure should return to the council in the near future. No estimated date was given for the presentation or vote on the ordinance.
Mendoza alone vote against moving forward with such an ordinance, but did not cite reasons for his negative vote.
In brief news:
The council declined, with a split 4-3 vote, to examine an ordinance that would prevent smoking in local eating establishments which earn more than 51 percent of their revenue from food service.
Citing public health concerns, Sanders, Gomez and White said they would support such an ordinance. Banks, Gonzales-Sanchez, Castillo and Mendoza voted against the ordinance, suggesting it is the responsibility of individual business owners to decide whether they want to allow smoking in their establishments.
They also voted unanimously to examine an ordinance that will add provisions to city statute to allow drivers to use golf carts as well as Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) on city streets.
Current law allows for NEVs, but makes no provisions for the use of “street legal” golf carts. Under the new ordinance, which Rodgers will present to the council at a later date, the city would develop a procedure for inspecting and issuing permits for golf carts as well, provided those golf carts have windshields, headlights, tail lights, brake lights, seat belts and other safety equipment in place.
The council voted to nominate former Mayor Pro Tem Frank Estrada to fill an unexpired term on the Caldwell County Appraisal District Board of Directors.
They also approved a change to the city’s Land Use Plan, proposed by City Planner Dan Gibson as a result of a necessary change brought forth by the planned construction of a new Wal Mart Supercenter south of Lockhart.
The Lockhart City Council routinely meets on the first and third Tuesday of each month at 7:30 p.m. in the Glosserman Conference Room in Lockhart City Hall. The meetings are open to the public and televised on Time Warner Digital Cable Channel 10.