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State parks' 'friends' upset by bills that may kill them off

George Skalkeas, 63 (left), and George Fischer, 71, are shown as volunteers with the Friends of the Island Parks in this 2010 file photo. They have built more than 30 memorial benches together. They purchase the lumber at local home improvement stores, then assemble the benches on the workshop at Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin.

Times files

George Skalkeas, 63 (left), and George Fischer, 71, are shown as volunteers with the Friends of the Island Parks in this 2010 file photo. They have built more than 30 memorial benches together. They purchase the lumber at local home improvement stores, then assemble the benches on the workshop at Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin.

They build nature centers. They volunteer as tour guides. Some of them even pay park rangers' salaries.

Florida's state parks wouldn't win national prizes if it weren't for the 111 "Friends of" groups that help support them, groups such as the 345-member Friends of the Island Parks in Dunedin.

But the groups say a pair of bills that have been zooming through the Legislature this spring could doom them. At best, the legislation is likely to foul up their fundraising and long-range planning, they say.

"It's going to make it hard for us when we talk to donors," said Cindy Farris, president of Friends of the Island Parks, which helps both Honeymoon Island State Park and Caladesi Island State Park.

"It is baffling to us why they would do this," said Fritz Musselmann of the statewide umbrella group Friends of the Florida State Parks, who, like Farris, pointed out that nobody notified the "friends" groups of possible legislative action.

The bills originated with Senate President Don Gaetz, according to Gaetz spokeswoman Katie Betta, as "part of his commitment to passing ethics reform."

The bills — Senate Bill 1194 and House Bill 1153 — concern what state officials call "Citizen Support and Direct-Support Organizations." Those include not just the various "friends" groups for the parks but also similar organizations that assist the Guardian Ad Litem program, the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the Department of Elderly Affairs.

Because the public may confuse those nonprofits with the government agencies they help, Gaetz, a Panhandle Republican, decided they should meet the same open-government standards, Betta said. She said he was concerned about groups that are taking taxpayer funding, although when asked she could not name any.

The House sponsor, Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, has said there are no groups affiliated with the parks or any other agency that have caused any problems so far.

The bills call for those groups to start filing annual reports to the agencies they help, giving details on their organization, mission and finances. That's no big deal, say officials from the parks groups. They do that already.

The problem, they say, is the part that calls for "future review and repeal" of their groups. Every five years, they would face a "sunset review" by the Legislature. If they could not justify their existence, the Legislature would shut them down. The first deadline would be in 2019.

"How do we explain to potential donors that in five years we might cease to exist?" Farris asked.

"It's very disconcerting," said Ray Dabkowski, vice president of Friends of the Island Parks. "People like to leave us things in their wills. Will they still do that if we may not be around in five years?"

The Island Parks group, which raised money to pay for building the Honeymoon Island nature center and pays the salary of the ranger based there, has raised about a third of the money needed to build a $595,000 center on Caladesi.

"If that's not built by 2019, what happens to the money?" asked Dabkowski.

Hager dismissed those concerns during a committee hearing Monday. Renewing all those parks groups in the House "would probably pass 120-0," he said.

However, renewal is not a sure thing. In 1979, legislators failed to renew the state board that licensed psychologists. For six months, until the Legislature fixed it, anyone with a county occupational license could claim to be a psychologist. Some people bought them as jokes — including the owner of a chameleon who claimed it was a "psychoanalyst and sex therapist."

But Betta said the sunset provision would give the organizations "an opportunity for some of them to showcase their activities for the public."

A bigger question might be what the state parks would do without the help of the "friends" groups. A Senate committee staff analysis notes only that "if the bill results in the repeal of (the organizations), the state may experience indeterminate negative and positive fiscal impacts."

But it includes no breakdown of how much money the state would have to scrape up on its own if the groups were blinked out of existence. The state Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the park system, has not taken a position on the bills, a spokeswoman said.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @craigtimes.

State parks' 'friends' upset by bills that may kill them off 04/04/14 [Last modified: Friday, April 4, 2014 8:49pm]

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