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State official sees end to park cuts
The head of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources said Wednesday that he does not anticipate having to make deeper budget cuts in the operation of state parks and historic sites on the coast.

Mark Williams, DNR commissioner, spoke to the Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce's quarterly luncheon at King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort on St. Simons Island.

Several parks in the coastal area have been operating under cuts for some time now. Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation in Brunswick and Fort Morris in Liberty County are open three days a week, and the public swimming pools at Crooked River State Park in Camden County and Laura S. Walker State Park in Ware County have been closed because the state lacks funding to install updated equipment.

Cuts stem from Gov. Nathan Deal's request that all state entities submit a plan to cut 3 percent from their budgets for both the current and next fiscal years.

Williams said he is not happy to cut the natural resources department that has already seen layoffs and diminished employee hours over the last several years. The department has had to reduce its budget by 26 percent since 2008.

"But we have to live under the economic realities," Williams said. "We have had to become a little bit leaner."

Additional cuts will not affect the services offered during the diminished operating hours, he added.

Williams said he is looking for ways to cut budgets and still provide access to Georgia's natural and historical places. He said that wisely investing state dollars to maximize returns is paramount.

He will ask the Georgia General Assembly during its next 40-day session, which starts in January, for more than $12 million in bonded projects to update facilities around the state, he said.

"Some of you have traveled to our facilities and know that we've got a huge backlog of repairs and maintenance needs within our parks," Williams said.

The $12 million would be only a drop in the bucket compared to the more than $128 million Williams said is needed to continue earning revenue from lodges and campgrounds around the state.

"We have parks where a small investment into overnight accommodations, such as yurts, can make a park profitable," Williams said. "These are the types of projects we'll focus on in the coming year."

Yurts are permanent tents perched atop a platform that offer cheap, mobile accommodations akin to camping but with more amenities, Williams said.

As state cuts continue to affect the operations of all DNR divisions, Williams said he also is closely watching the federal government, which provides 62 percent of the budget for the department's Coastal Resources Division, headquartered in Brunswick.

"We know there are changes coming on this front as well, and we are keeping close tabs on what's going on in D.C., both on the political side and at the agencies that we work with," Williams said.

Those agencies include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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