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National parks in Ohio cutting hours, hiring due to sequestration

When the federal government cut $34,440 out of its budget for the remainder of the fiscal year, leaders at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor did something they had hoped to avoid before their busiest time of the year.

They closed the park on Sundays – one of the busiest days of the week.

That means some of the 30,000 tourists who visit the site each year won’t be able to do it on one of the most popular days of the week. The park is required to pay a higher salary on Sundays and in the era of mandatory budget cuts – called “sequestration” in Washington parlance – the cost was just too high, said Todd Arrington, chief of interpretation and education at the park.

They had little choice. The park’s highest costs are salaries, benefits and utilities, “and the gas company isn’t going to reduce your bill just because you’re sequestered,” Arrington said.

They’ll also close on Mondays and federal holidays, will reduce hours for permanent part-time staff, won’t hire seasonal staff and will cancel some special events while scaling back others.

They are not alone. National Park Service sites across the state and the nation are taking a red pen to their budgets, trying to determine how to cut costs without ruining the experiences of hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock to those sites.

In Ohio, the National Park Service operates nine sites that attracted more than 2.6 million visitors in 2012. The ninth site – added last week – is a national monument in Xenia dedicated to famed African-American soldier Charles Young.

In Dayton, Dean Alexander has absorbed the cuts to the Dayton Aviation Heritage Site and the Hopewell Mound Site in Chillicothe by becoming superintendent of both sites. Before becoming superintendent of the Dayton site, Alexander was superintendent at Chillicothe for seven years. “They are going to have share me for awhile,” he said. Similarly, the new Xenia site will share a superintendent with Cincinnati’s William Howard Taft National Historic Site.

The sites have also canceled programming and will cut back on seasonal employees this year, he said. They’ve also left open the option of closing one of Dayton’s two visitor centers one or two days a week, but have not done so yet.

Dayton, with a $2.1 million budget, will see roughly $100,000 less this fiscal year. Chillicothe, which receives $1.2 million a year, will face some $50,000 in cuts. Dayton sees about 60,000 visitors a year; Chillicothe sees about 35,000, he said.

In northeast Ohio, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park – 33,000 acres along the Cuyahoga River between Cleveland and Akron – has cut $600,000 from its $10 million budget. The park has among the top 10 most visited national parks and saw 2.2 million visitors during fiscal year 2012.

The initial plan was to close some of the restrooms in the park but officials later tweaked that plan, keeping all restrooms open, but with a reduced level of cleaning.

Training, overtime, service contract, supply purchases, fleet vehicles and seasonal hires have also been cut. The park will have 35 fewer seasonal staff going into the summer season, meaning fewer visitor center hours, less trail maintenance and less mowing.

Stan Austin, the park’s superintendent, said park officials were working “diligently” to maintain high-quality visitor experiences but admitted there would be a reduced “level of service” as a result of the cuts.

In Dayton, Alexander admits to having “some anxiety” about the cuts. The National Park Service required parks to eliminate summer positions before firing or furloughing permanent employees. But without those summer hires, there’s bound to be an impact, he said.

“Any time you make cuts like that, it’s going to affect public services,” he said.

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