Public complaints about the poor quality of service have prompted state officials to cancel one of the state's largest experiments with privatization of government services.
Beginning in January, the Division of State Parks and Rec-reation will begin handling its own statewide reservations - on a new $100,000 computerized system to be operated by park officials."With the number of complaints we were having, we decided the reservation system was not being operated (by the private sector) the way we thought it should," said Steven D. Roberts, associate director of administration for State Parks and Recreation.
"The inflexibility of the system (under private contractors) really gave us a lot of heart-burn."
The state canceled its contract with Mistix, a San Diego-based firm that also handles reservations for the National Forest Service. That contract allowed Mistix to charge a $5.25 reservation fee, plus additional fees for cancellations and yet more fees for changing reservations.
"People felt like they were getting skinned, and quite frankly they were," Roberts said. "They would call in to make a reservation and would have to pay the camping fee plus the reservation fee. Then they would call back later to modify their reservation and they would have to pay a cancellation fee plus another reservation fee."
And there were also complaints about double bookings. And when there were problems, angry park visitors took out their frustration on park officials, who had no control over the reservation system. Even park rangers had no control over where people camped.
While park rangers saved valuable time not worrying about the reservations, "the park managers became puppets to the system, taking grief from the public when things didn't go right or couldn't be changed."
Under the new state system, park reservations will be handled through a centralized system for a $5 reservation fee. But there will be no additional fees for cancellations or modifications to the original reservation.
And park managers will also have direct-line access to the main computer to handle problems and to accommodate those with last-minute change of plans. "It gives us the flexibility that was the problem under Mistix. And if a park superintendent can make whatever changes right there on the spot, then we've got a happy camp-er."
The contract with Mistix was part of an ongoing effort by the division to turn over certain park operations to the private sector. The philosophy behind the Mistix contract and others like it was privatization: If free enterprise is more efficient than government, then the private sector should be able to provide certain government services cheaper and better.
But the cancellation of the Mistix contract is the second time the division has canceled a major privatization contract. Two years ago, the division canceled the private contract to operate the golf course at Wasatch Mountain State Park.
"Basically, the state lost a lot of money on that deal," Roberts said. "Since we resumed management of the golf course, our revenues increased the first year by over $200,000, and this year they increased by yet another $150,000."
Roberts said the division is particularly gun-shy about privatization right now, and there is a growing consensus within the division that state parks can do the same job more efficiently and with better service to taxpayers.
And because it is taxpayer money that is being used to develop the state parks, there is a growing reluctance among park officials to consider bids for privatization that do not include provisions for recouping the state's initial investment.
"It's one thing to invest and build something, and quite another when the state builds it and has all the money invested. And to just turn that over to a private individual to make a profit doesn't serve our needs. We get nothing out of it to satisfy the state's investment."
Roberts says the golf course at Wasatch Mountain is now making a profit and that those profits now subsidize other parks that cannot turn a profit.
"People have to recognize that the business of parks and recreation is not one for the big bucks," he said. "People who want to make money will drill for oil, not build parks. Yet parks are so essential to our society that people demand they be there."
The division has included a provision in its current policy that requires private contractors to pay an annual fee to cover a portion of the state's investment in the park.
"We're saying, `If you are serious about taking it over, we want some of the state's initial investment back.' When we say that, then suddenly nobody is interested."
Marinas on various lakes are the next item up for review by a privatization committee. "We built the marinas because nobody else would. And now we have people lined up wanting to take them over," Roberts said.
Roberts notes that because of the seasonal nature of Utah's state parks, few will ever be profitable. And with many parks, like Pioneer Trail or the many museums the division manages, the issue is not making money but preserving a quality of life.
Last year, park revenues paid for only 34 percent of the cost of operating the state's 44 parks. Only two parks bring in more money than they spend, and only nine parks bring in more than 50 percent of their operating costs.
Revenues and profits at state parks
Those parks making a profit or coming closest to it, with revenues as a percentage of operating costs:
Red Fleet 124 percent (+$19,871)
Wasatch Mountain 105 percent (+$40,816)
Willard Bay 79 percent (-$49,063)
Bear Lake 78 percent (-$58,191)
Natural History Fieldhouse 69 percent (-$53,481)
Those making the least profit, with revenues as a percentage of operating costs:
Antelope Island 3 percent (-$197,674)
Camp Floyd 4 percent (-$77,413)
Steinaker 7 percent (-$100,796)
Iron Mission 8 percent (-$127,389)
Territorial Statehouse 9 percent (-$99,974)
Fort Buenaventura 9 percent (-$88,611)
Those that lost the most money:
Pioneer Trail $502,856
Jordan River $363,100
Antelope Island $197,674
Utah Lake $192,859
Fremont Indian $174,480