CARLYLE — Even nature's beauty, it turns out, is sometimes only skin-deep.
Gary Tatham, the superintendent at Eldon Hazlet State Park, said visitors to the site -- one of the Department of Natural Resources' top attractions -- find a park that is clean and teeming with natural beauty.
"The park looks nice and clean when you drive through it," Tatham said. "It's when you start looking at things like a road buckling. No one is going to see the fact that my sewer treatment plant is rusting, and nobody's going to look critically at the shower buildings and notice there's cracking up on the ceiling, and nobody's going to look at this administration building and notice that the roof is leaking."
Hazlet just doesn't have the money or manpower to tackle some festering needs, Tatham said.
The situation is common across DNR, which in the past decade, going back to the days when Gov. Rod Blagojevich raided the agency's money, has seen its annual budget cut from about $107 million to about $45 million. The agency had about 2,600 employees a decade ago, and now has fewer than 1,200.
DNR spokesman Chris McCloud said the agency has a $750 million backlog in maintenance and capital needs, such as deteriorating bath and shower facilities, outdated and dangerous electrical systems, declining water and sewer systems, and road and bridges that need repairs.
DNR planners predict they'll have to make more cuts and put off more projects if they can't secure more revenue. To that end, two proposals have surfaced: an additional $2 added to the annual fee for Illinois license plates or a park entry fee.
This past spring in the state legislature, the entry fee proposal gained traction first, but it gave way to the idea of the increased license plate fee.
The House passed a bill for an entry fee, but it didn't specify an amount for the fee. Logistical concerns were raised over how to collect it. Some state parks have multiple entries. And what about visitors entering the park only to eat at a restaurant, or to stay at a campground, where they're already charged a camping fee?
"It's not like an amusement park, where you have one entrance in and one exit out," McCloud said. "You would need to have somebody be able to collect those fees, or you would have to come up with a way for us to police it. If you're going to have to hire more staff or come up with ticket booths or something like that, there is a valid concern that you're just going to offset the funds you've just received by paying for more people."
The entry fee bill stalled and gave way to Senate Bill 1566, the $2 added to license plates. It's estimated that it could eventually provide $32 million for DNR.
The Senate bill received a 33-21 vote in the Senate on the final day of the legislature's spring session, but because the vote was taken after midnight, it needed a super-majority to pass. Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, voted in favor of passage, while Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton; Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville; and Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, voted against it.
"We know there's support for it," McCloud said. "Hopefully we'll have another chance to bring it back before the legislature in the fall."
Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, in a recent interview, said he's told supporters "we're going to pass that bill" and "they should do their budgeting accordingly."
McCloud said, "We certainly understand and want to make it an enjoyable and very cheap experience, but unfortunately we've just run out of options on being able to provide state parks free of charge. The state's in very poor financial shape, and the DNR itself is also in very poor financial shape."
ENTRY FEE OR LICENSE PLATE INCREASE?
Park users interviewed last week at Hazlet had mixed opinions on whether there should be an entry fee or an extra $2 for license plates.
Mike Drees of Aviston, who was camping at Hazlet, said there should be an entry fee -- but it shouldn't be charged to campers, who already pay $20 per night. Drees said there are "a lot of people from Missouri who use the park, and wouldn't have to pay extra for their license plates. That's another benefit to the entry fee."
McCloud and Tatham said an entry fee for out-of-state visitors is included in Senate Bill 1566, but its details, including the amount and how to collect it, have not yet been finalized.
Erick Peterson of Collinsville, who practiced his bow-shooting Wednesday at Hazlet's archery range after doing some fishing, said he'd rather pay the extra license plate fee, instead of an entry fee.
"I'd rather not have to deal with the hassle every time I come here, when I've only got an hour or two to fish or hunt," he said. "Having to stop at a pay booth or buy a ticket somewhere, it seems like that would take away from the experience -- commercialize it. And I don't think two bucks a year is going to break anybody."
Peterson said he's been coming to Hazlet for about 10 years, and has noticed a decline.
"Little things, like the potholes getting bigger and deeper, or boards that need to be replaced here and there, or the areas they mow getting smaller. And some of the older outhouses and stuff like that, they really need to just start over with those," he said. "You can see that they're hurting."
Bob Mehrtens of Smithon, who fished Thursday at Hazlet, also favors a $2 increase in license plates rather than an entry fee. He said while some people might not use state parks, the properties are state assets that benefit everyone. And taxes and fees aren't always fair to all, he said.
"Just like the guy who pays $100 for his license plate, and he only drives 5,000 miles a year. He pays the same fee as the guy who drives 100,000 miles," Mehrtens said.
Mehrtens said the extra $2 on his license plates "wouldn't bother me," as long as the state also tries to collect a fee from out-of-staters.
Mehrtens, a frequent camper, said he's noticed the budget impact at state parks, and usually tries to first get a campsite at federal campgrounds operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Carlyle Lake.
"At some of the state parks, the weeds are growing up, and who wants to camp with weeds that high?" he said, holding up his hand. "The Corps of Engineers actually keeps better parks and cleaner parks, I'll be honest with you. They keep everything Spic 'n Span."
Tatham said he has seven full-time staff members now, compared to 17 a decade ago. The seven include himself and an assistant who does secretarial and clerical work. The park has the largest and busiest campground in the state, and draws about 1 million visitors annually.
"The last seven years, we're not doing any permanent improvements, not doing any rehab work. I've got 45-year-old shower buildings that frankly should be knocked down. We've got a roof on this (administration) building that's leaking -- I just had it patched -- it was leaking over my assistant's desk through the light fixtures," he said. "My sewage treatment plant is rusting out from within ... it could break at any time."
When the campground, which has about 350 campsites, nears capacity, which is often, the electrical system blows breakers.
A priority project is raising the entry road to the park, so that it doesn't flood during high water levels at the lake. The park, which sits higher, could then remain open during high lake levels, while many other recreation areas around the lake would have to close.
On Tatham's wish list is a 9.2-mile bike trail through Hazlet, which would connect to other trails planned for around the lake. The interconnecting trail around the lake has been pushed by leaders in the region.
"Right now, we try to keep the park clean, we try to keep it mowed, and we try to keep it safe," Tatham said. "Does that always happen? We have 3,000 people in the campground, using three shower buildings that are 45 years old. You can clean them at 7 o'clock in the morning, and they'll be dirty by 7:30. We clean shower buildings every day of the summer, but it's not enough."
Luckily, Tatham said, this year's drought has "really knocked down" the amount of mowing required, allowing workers to get some painting and other work done.
"We've got more jobs to do than we have people to do them. We don't have the people to do them, or the budget to do them, and we're having to get permission to fix tractors or fix mowers or fix vehicles. And when they break, sometimes we just have to let them sit," he said.
The Hazlet office also runs South Shore State Park, which is on the south side of Carlyle Lake and, 10 years ago, had nice recreation areas and a campground. Now, the campground is closed, the road through the park has massive potholes, and much of the area is overgrown.
"Not proud of it, that's for sure," Tatham said.
Tatham said he essentially had to choose between operating two state parks with minimal resources at both, versus shifting some resources from South Shore to the busier Hazlet.
"South Shore is frustrating for us, but when you're not staffed and you don't have a budget, there's not a whole lot you can do with it," he said.
South Shore is now what Tatham calls a "watchable wildlife" area. On the state's master plans, it's listed as a site that could be developed if money becomes available and the need arises.
Horseshoe Lake State Park's staff has been cut from nine employees a decade ago to two, plus a part-time secretary. Meantime, the land covered by the park has grown from about 3,000 acres to about 5,100 acres.
Jim Gowen, the site superintendent at the park, which is in the Granite City area, said the effects include mowing less area. Anecdotally, he noted that he has frames for some new picnic tables, but no lumber.
The staff at Frank Holten State Park in East St. Louis has been cut from eight a decade ago to three. Site Superintendent Tom Orlet said the park has "seen better days," and there are "many things around the park that have to go undone," such as repairing fences that have been hit by cars.
"Every day, it's a matter of trying to figure out what's the most important thing for that day," Orlet said.
The staff at Pere Marquette State Park near Grafton stands at seven, down from 22 a decade ago.
Site Superintendent Chris Hespen says that in the early stages of cuts, there were changes to "management styles and things that really weren't visible to the visitors. But with reductions and reductions and reductions over the last 10, 15 years, there's nothing left to cut that won't significantly impact public access or the quality of experience."
One visible change at Pere Marquette: Workers now cut only one mower-width of grass along roads.
"We're treading water as best we can," Hespen said. "There's no way to sprinkle magic dust on all 8,800 acres here at the park."
Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2511.