As the 2016 legislative session moves forward there are numerous bills coming to the House floor for debate. Included in that number is House Bill 2187, a bill concerning a possible new Missouri state park.
House Bill 2187 is a much discussed and debated bill concerning DNR’s acquisition of the Frederick Creek Ranch in Oregon County in south-central Missouri along the Eleven Point River to be used as a new state park.
Missouri parks are under the DNR and it is this group that has purchased the Oregon County land and is negotiating for other property in the area. HB 2187 seeks to force the Missouri Department of Resources to sell land that it had acquired for the development of a new park, land that was purchased using funds earmarked for lead clean up projects.
There was never any lead mining done in Oregon County, nor does the watershed in that area flow from any lead mine.
The primary objection of legislators to this project is the use of federal funds intended for lead clean-up. The purpose of the federal remediation funds is not to buy land for another state park, especially in an area where there was never any lead mining or water contaminated by lead mines in the first place.
Furthermore, money for Missouri state parks is limited at this time. Funding for our parks is through a 1/10 of one cent sales tax, with one-half of that going to state parks and the other half going to soils and water. This tax has a sunset every 10 years and is up for renewal this year (2016). It will go before voters this fall and, traditionally, voters have been supportive of renewing the tax.
Negotiations for the Oregon County property have not been transparent or open to the county’s commissioners but has been done under “a shroud of secrecy,” even to the point of leaving local county elected officials in the dark about the project.
Oregon County is already a “tax-poor” county with over 100,000 acres of their area as part of the Mark Twain National Forest. Any land that becomes a part of the Missouri parks system comes off the county tax roll at the end of five years. After that, there can be no more county property taxes assessed or collected on the land, thus effectively depriving a county of possibly substantial tax monies.
Patrick Ledgerwood, Presiding Commissioner for Oregon County stated: “We don’t want this. Nobody from DNR even talked with us about this before they decided to put a state park in our county.”
Multi millions of dollars have been spent by Missouri’s DNR to purchase the Oregon County property. The monies used for the purchase are federal funds that flowed directly to DNR, not having gone through the state appropriations or budgeting process, though they are not required to do so.
These federal remediation funds are intended to be used to clean up the lead damage that was done by the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO). There were five lead mining sites in Southeast Missouri (Missouri’s lead-mining district) which include the counties of Madison, Iron, Reynolds, and St. Francois. Additional sites are in SW MO near Joplin, but none of them are in Oregon County. Under the same federal project, several sites near Joplin are being remediated.
During the 2015 legislative interim, the House formed a committee to look into what many were saying was the inappropriate use of remediation settlement funds. The majority of House members believe that the ASARCO settlement monies should be used in the intended impacted areas of our state.
The misuse of these funds is not only a violation of the settlement agreement but of the public’s trust. This bill now moves to the Senate for its consideration.
County officials not knowing about and not wanting another state park in their area, an executive branch of Missouri government secretly moving forward with a multi-million dollar project, and state legislators questioning the possible misuse of appropriated earmarked federal funds by an executive branch and desiring to undo their stealthy action that will ultimately cost a Southeast Missouri county substantial tax revenue could result in problems ahead for DNR and the Missouri park system.
The Senate will take up and consider the issue.
By Bill Reiboldt
(State Rep. Bill Reiboldt, R-Neosho, represents the 160th District of Missouri, which includes Neosho, Diamond, and Granby. He can be reached at his Capitol office at (573) 751-9781 or by email at email@example.com.)