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Sun, Dec. 15

Another Grand Canyon funding crisis looms

PHOENIX -- Arizona has about $275,000 in the bank earmarked for Grand Canyon operations -- and less than two days to decide whether to use that to keep the national park open if budget negotiations in Washington remain stalled.

The park reopened Saturday morning after the state wired $651,000 to Washington to cover operating costs for a week.

But the contract Gov. Jan Brewer signed with the National Park Service spells out that it takes two days to close it down. And the pact also says that additional dollars will be accepted in nothing less than two-day increments.

So if the federal shutdown continues and Arizona wants the park to remain open, the governor has to wire at least another $186,000 to the Parks Service by close of business Wednesday.

The good news is the state appears to have some extra cash.

That original wire transfer was covered with $500,000 taken from the Arizona Office of Tourism and $200,000 authorized by the Town of Tusayan.

On Saturday, however, Tusayan Mayor Greg Bryan handed Brewer a check for $426,000. That includes not only what the town council pledged but also what had been raised to that point by local businesses.

That extra $226,000, coupled with what was left over from the original $700,000, would be more than enough to finance the park through Sunday.

But gubernatorial press aide Andrew Wilder said just because the state has the money does not mean his boss intends to use it. He said Brewer may instead take the excess from Tusayan and replenish some of the dollars taken from the state's tourism account.

Wilder said the soonest there will be a decision on that is sometime Tuesday.

"There just aren't clear answers to that,' he said.

The cash infusion has apparently had the intended effect.

Park spokeswoman Kirby-Lynn Shedlowski said there's been "a little bit of a lag' in getting business back to normal. After all, the park was closed for more than a week.

But Shedlowski said the Mather campground, with more than 300 sites, filled up immediately on Saturday night. And she expects a tally on the number of daily visitors to approach the normal 18,000 for this time of the year.

"It's pretty busy,' Shedlowski said. "I was surprised at the number of cars heading to the park today.'

In Tusayan, Town Manager Will Wright said business is up over what it was last week. But he said it's not quite back to normal for this time of year.

"People just made different plans,' he said.

Wright also said there is no official effort there to raise more money, whether from town coffers or once again tap local businesses, if the current funding to keep the park open runs out.

Wilder said there's a lot involved in any decision whether to pony up more cash.

"Hopefully, the federal government ends the shutdown,' he said. And Wilder, who has previously served as a press aide to members of Congress, said there are "reasons to be optimistic,' with what he sees in the statements coming out of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McDonnell.

"That's the ultimate solution,' he said. "They need to end the shutdown.'

But the deal Brewer inked does not her the chance to wait until the last minute. Wilder said the Park Service needs to have the money wired to it by close of business Wednesday or shutdown plans kick in on Thursday morning.

There is a bit of a safeguard for the state in fronting some more dollars without knowing exactly what Congress and the president will do: The contract says the Park Service will refund any unused balance if Congress appropriates funding for operation before the state financing run out.

Wilder said that, no matter how much the state spends, Brewer hopes everyone who contributed will get reimbursed. But the Park Service, in its end of the contract, specifically makes no such promise, saying that question ultimately has to be decided by Congress.

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