More than 21 million people visited Florida's state parks in the last year, making the system one of the country's biggest and busiest — and, perhaps, most in need of work due to wear and tear.
But beginning earlier this month, park officials at 160 beaches, museums, preserves and historical sites statewide saw the overall state park maintenance and repair budget slim to $5 million — a decrease of nearly 83 percent, or more than $23 million.
At the height of their popularity, and with millions of dollars in needed repairs, Florida's state parks are now working with a maintenance budget that has dwindled to its lowest level in years.
"Facility repair is where we'll really be hurting," said Pete Krulder, who manages the state parks in Pinellas County, including Honeymoon Island and the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Piers. "We'll have to look a little bit harder on what projects we're going to do."
"Instead of having the nice-to-do things," Krulder said, "it's going to be the have-to-do things."
Prioritizing what work will get funded could be tough. A needs list supplied to the St. Petersburg Times includes more than 400 pages of pending projects statewide, from fixing broken equipment to removing invasive plants.
Egmont Key staff wanted wider and less steep bathroom ramps to accommodate wheelchairs. Hillsborough River staff requested money to stop flooding. Caladesi Island staff requested the replacement of "very bad" parts in their wastewater treatment plant, along with repairs to a tank filled with sediment that hasn't been pumped in a decade.
The repair requests add up. For the 11 state parks in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando counties, which welcomed 2.8 million people last year, needs exceed more than $18 million.
Even the state's most popular park, Honeymoon Island in Dunedin, needs help. Many of the park's facilities are nearly 30 years old, Krulder said, and two bathhouses have severe leaks and interior damage.
Florida Division of Recreation and Parks director Mike Bullock said the skinnier budget will be limited to "absolutely necessary" repairs like the Honeymoon Island bathhouses, "based on safety and keeping parks running."
Bullock said the repair cuts won't affect operations. No parks will close or reduce hours.
"Considering our economic situation, that was a very good way for the Legislature to do it," Bullock said. "Our day-to-day operations basically stayed the same."
The park system operating budget is $81 million, approximately the same as last year. More than half of that comes from entrance charges, camping fees, photography permits and nearly 60 other sources, according to division budget manager Steve Dana.
How the maintenance budget cuts could affect that revenue, the individual parks, or the estimated $1 billion spent yearly by park visitors at nearby restaurants, shops and gas stations, remains to be seen.
"It's certainly going to have an impact on tourism," Bullock said. "You can't just keep bringing in more and more people and sustain that on less budget."
To counter cuts, park fees for entrance, camping and cabin rentals have increased anywhere from $1 to $10 a day. Parks officials also said federal grants may net the parks up to $8 million, though nothing is certain.
Though Florida's budget expanded by $1 billion this year, more than a dozen state agencies have experienced similar cuts.
The state's Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees parks, land, water and waste, lost nearly $300 million this fiscal year, much of it from waste cleanup and water management. Besides transportation and community affairs, no other department faced steeper cuts.
Other states face big changes to their park budgets. A budget passed Friday by the California Legislature slashed $8 million and may close up to 50 parks statewide. Colorado parks will have $3 million less this year for construction and other funds.
But not all the changes were negative. The Texas Parks and Wildlife budget increased 12 percent this year, allowing for a $28 million increase to its park repair budget. Extra funding for the state's 93 parks, visited last year by more than 7 million people, will contribute to repairs for damage caused by Hurricane Ike.
"The fact that in these lean times we have $28 million in bonds to work on this backlog of projects is a very positive thing," said Texas State Parks Director Walt Dabney. "A lot of states wouldn't have issued those."
Drew Harwell can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4170.