State opens bidding for maintenance of four state parks

Published 11:18 am Friday, January 7, 2022

In the ongoing saga regarding the funding of Mississippi’s state parks, the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks opened bidding this week for the maintenance of four state parks in northern Mississippi.

The department is seeking bids from private contractors for the upkeep of Wall Doxey State Park near Holly Springs, John Kyle State Park at Sardis Reservoir, Hugh White State Park in Grenada and George P. Cossar State Park in Oakland.

“We opened the bidding [Wednesday] and we’re looking at bids for four parks,” said Jennifer Head, the department’s budget administrator and legislative liaison. “We will receive bids through Feb. 1… and then we’ll evaluate everything at that point.”

The move comes after multiple failed legislative attempts to either fund or privatize the parks system.

Last year, House Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Chairman Bill Kincade’s committee introduced two bills in 2021 that attempted to provide additional funding to state parks.

House Bill 152 would have diverted $3.5 million per year in state lottery money to maintenance for state parks, but that bill never made it out of committee.

House Bill 1231, which would have diverted $1 million per year in sales tax collected at sporting goods stores to a new “Mississippi Outdoors Stewardship Fund,” was more successful but died after the House and Senate could not agree as to who should direct how the fund was managed.

While the House tried to create additional funding for state parks, the Senate pushed for privatization.

Senate Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Chairman Neil Whaley, R-Potts Camp, introduced a bill that would cut the number of parks maintained by the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks from 22 to four. Other parks would be leased to private companies, turned over to local municipalities or converted to wildlife conservation areas.

Whaley’s bill was backed by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who oversees the Senate and said fixing Mississippi’s state parks was a legislative priority last year.

“What that tells me is that the House and Senate agree it’s an issue,” Hosemann told Mississippi Today last January.

Hosemann said he would oppose any privatization that restricted access for the general public or significantly raised the price of admission for parks. He also said he opposes selling any park land to private corporations.

Mississippi’s state parks are in a constant state of disrepair. The Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks reported that it had a $147 million maintenance backlog last year.

The state does not have a dedicated source of funds for the maintenance of state parks like other states do.

In Arkansas, parks are funded through a “conservation tax” that dedicates 1/8th of 1%  of the state’s general sales tax to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Arkansas state parks, the Arkansas Heritage Commission and the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission. In Alabama, parks are self-funded through fees and rentals. Many other states match federal funds for state parks in order to foot the bill.

Mississippi ranks 43rd in spending per capita and 38th in total spending on parks and recreation according to a study conducted by the Outdoor Industry Association.