Entrance of Starr's Cave Nature Center. The center is open for volunteers.

Spring 2022 EE Update

Volunteers are needed to staff Starr’s Cave Nature Center!

April means the beginning of summer hours at Starr’s Cave Nature Center. This year, we need your help.  Do you enjoy interacting with the public and talking with people about nature and outdoor recreation? Help us staff Starr’s Cave Nature Center! Shifts are generally Saturdays from 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. If we find enough volunteers to help, we can split the Saturday shift into two. Volunteer duties include opening the nature center, talking to visitors, light cleaning, and closing the nature center. If you’re interested in helping us head over to our website and fill out a volunteer contact form or call Kelly at 319-753-5808.

Starr’s Cave staff is gearing up for summer camp. Summer Camp signup is on Tuesday, April 26th at 7:00 a.m. The list of summer camps offered as well as dates and prices can be found on the Des Moines County Conservation website.

This year we’re launching a new camp: River Raiders. This camp is 4 days with two overnights. Campers will canoe the Iowa River and camp in Louisa County. We will spend one day in orientation reviewing equipment, safety, and team building in preparation for a three-day, two-night canoe-camping experience. Campers will explore, fish, forage, and have fun. Students will learn about natural and human history while acquiring valuable outdoor living and safety skills. Campers will learn to work together to accomplish goals and challenges, building confidence and trust, both in themselves and in others. This camp includes three days and two overnights on the Iowa River in Louisa County at Virginia Grove the first night and Snively Campground or Flaming Prairie Park the second (depending on river level). Campers must attend a mandatory skills day on Wednesday, June 8, 2022, at Langwood Education Center from 1:00 p.m. - 4:30 p.m.

Keep an eye on our Facebook page for up-to-date hours and closures. Due to a busy schedule of programs, we encourage you to call before you stop by to make sure someone will be there. As always if you’re out here and the sign says “Open” feel free to stop in!

Youth Jamboree Returns with New Date

After a two-year hiatus, the annual Outdoor Youth Jamboree is back! This popular family event is a day of outdoor fun at Big Hollow Recreation Area and often draws around 1,000 people to the park. The completely free event offers instructor-led target shooting with .22’s, shotguns, BB guns, and archery methods. It also offers canoeing, guided boat tours of the lake, fishing, and a free lunch. The event is put on by a squadron of volunteers representing nearly every conservation and wildlife organization in the county. 

This year, the event will be held on Saturday, June 4, from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., coinciding with the state’s Free Fishing Weekend and hopefully garnering better weather than in the past when the event was traditionally held in mid-May. 

The event is free and open to the public with no age restrictions. Everything for the various stations is provided including fishing poles, bait, firearms and ammunition. Pre-registration is encouraged.

Volunteers are still needed for the event. If you would like to volunteer, send an email to outdooryouthjamboree@gmail.com or call Kelly Rundell at Starr’s Cave Nature Center at 319-753-5808.

The boat ramp at Big Hollow Lake receives an overhaul to make it easier for visitors to use.

Big Hollow Boat Ramp & Other Park Improvements

At long last, the boat ramp at Big Hollow Lake is getting an overhaul. The steepness of the ramp has been a top complaint from park visitors since the lake was completed in 2008. After private donations provided the necessary match to secure a state grant funded by marine fuel tax revenues, we were able to trigger the project. Demolition on the ramp started March 21st and the whole project was expected to take two weeks or less. But the weather decided not to cooperate and near-daily rains slowed the progress. But the project was finally completed the first week of April and a ribbon cutting was held on April 8th to celebrate. 

This ramp project is one component of a much larger plan for Big Hollow. The Park Master Plan identifies many improvements that will transform Big Hollow into a “World-Class Park.” A capital campaign to raise private funds to use as grant leverage is just getting started and the county recently allocated $100,000 of its $7.5 million American Rescue Plan Act allocation to some of the next projects. That money, along with private donations, will be used to (hopefully) leverage grants totaling more than $500,000. Those funds will be used in the coming year or two to add more campsites, improve existing campsites, and add accessible walkways around the beach, on the fishing jetty and to the kayak launch dock below the campground. The grant decisions are expected this spring/early summer.

Cyclists on the Flint River Trail in Des Moines County, Iowa.

Extending from Burlington’s riverfront to Big Hollow Recreation Area is a cross-county, multi-use trail called the Flint River Trail. The project has been ongoing for a long time and some segments are still in the works but the corridor is essentially complete. Most of the trail is off-road but several segments share the road. The construction on Highway 61 north of Burlington currently blocks westward progress out of Starr’s Cave Park and Preserve but once the highway is done, trail users will be able to cross under the highway at Flint Creek and not have to worry about crossing the traveled lanes of traffic. 

The Flint River Trail project began as part of the Great River Gateway Vision Iowa project, which has provided funding for improvements in tourism attractions in the City of Burlington and Des Moines County - including Big Hollow Recreation Area, Burlington Public Library, Des Moines County Heritage Center, Burlington Memorial Auditorium, Burlington Bees baseball (Community Field) and the Flint River Trail. The City of Burlington and Des Moines County have been working cooperatively to complete all of these projects, including the Flint River Trail, which will be the first significant multi-mile trail planned in Southeast Iowa.   

The trail is approximately 18 miles long and connects the Mississippi River Trail, downtown Burlington, the Port of Burlington, Riverside Park, Starr’s Cave Park and Preserve, Hickory Bend Recreation Area, Historic Zion School, and Big Hollow Recreation Area through the Flint River Valley. 

The trail is a popular outdoor recreation destination that sees daily visitors during the warmer months. At the height of the pandemic and before the US 61 project temporarily closed the access last year, the parking lot at the end of the paved segment of trail on the backside of Starr’s Cave Preserve saw 300 cars per week according to traffic counter data. Even in the winter, visits to the trail are at least a weekly occurrence. 

So the next time you’re looking for a place to get out for an extended hike or bike ride, check out one or more segments of the Flint River Trail. 

Find Local Parks and Trails on County GIS Site

If you’ve ever needed to look up a property owner, find out if property taxes are paid, or just wanted to see the county from a bird’s eye view, there’s a good chance you’ve visited the county’s GIS website at www.dmcgis.com. But did you know that you can use that site to easily find your county parks and trails? 

Next time you go to the site, use the drop-down menu to turn on the Parks and Recreational Areas and Trails layers. This will bring up all the county parks in yellow outlines (it’s easiest if you turn off the Parcels layer) and trails in red dashed lines. You can even click on the features and get park-specific information such as available activities (like hunting or fishing) and amenities (like campsites). 

We’re all for disconnecting from technology and getting outdoors. But we’re not against tapping some tech to decide where to go in the first place. The county’s GIS site is a good source for that information.

So about that budget…

You may have heard by now that our department is facing a significant budget cut this next fiscal year. And that’s true. It’s a steep enough cut that we may be forced to close some parks or facilities next year. In this rather lengthy post, we explain the situation in a lot of detail. We want you to understand the whole picture. But if you’d rather not read a couple thousand words about a departmental budget, just scroll to the end to see what you can do about it.

Here’s the quick version: Compared to the current year, we will be getting about $112,000 less from the tax base next year, a cut from $712,388 to a flat $600,000. That’s just shy of 16% less than the amount we’re currently operating on. 

Maybe $600-grand seems like a lot to you. Maybe it doesn’t. And there’s more to the situation, too. This new budget allows us to keep all of our revenue, which adds another $190,000 or so to the overall budget picture (all but about $20,000 of which we were already retaining prior to now). But keep in mind that we manage 19 parks, nearly 2,000 acres, over 100 campsites, over 20 miles of trails, and our annual park visitation numbers are well into six digits. To offer the parks and services that we do, we employ eight full time park and conservation professionals, two permanent part time employees, and usually four summer interns every year. We often also bring on contracted work teams to complete various park projects throughout the county.

So let’s get into the details…

Up until now, most of our budget ran through three funds: (1) General Basic - which  covers the bulk of operational expenses of most county departments, ours included. This fund covered all full-time staff salaries, park operational expenses for all parks except Big Hollow, and any department-wide operational expenses like fuel and vehicle maintenance. The portion of the General Basic fund that is allocated to our department is funded by the county tax levy and park revenue. 

For the current fiscal year which runs from July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022, the countywide General Basic tax levy was budgeted at just over $6 million. Of that, our department was allocated $615,837 in expenses. This was to be partially offset with revenue totaling $84,110 for a net allocation (expense minus revenue) of $531,727 from the General Basic tax levy.

(2) General Supplemental - this fund covers staff insurance, pension, and payroll taxes. The amounts in this fund can’t be adjusted as they’re either fixed percentages of payroll or set by insurance carriers. This is the only other tax-funded source of funds allocated to our department. For the current fiscal year, the county budgeted just over $1.95 million in tax revenue in this fund. Conservation’s allocation was $180,661. 

Combined, Conservation’s share of the tax-funded county budget (General Basic + General Supplemental) for the current fiscal year is, as noted above, $712,388, or 8.9% of the county’s total budgeted tax revenue for those two funds combined. In other words, for every $1,000 of your home’s assessed value, just less than 22.5 cents of your property tax bill goes to the conservation department. It’s about 37 cents per $1,000 valuation for ag, commercial, and industrial property. 

(3) The third fund used by the conservation department is called the Conservation Reserve Fund and is wholly funded by revenue generated from department operations. All the revenue generated by Big Hollow - mostly campground and shooting range fees - goes into this fund, as do most program fees from Starr’s Cave Nature Center programs, as well as some farm lease funds from other parks and revenue generated from the department’s contracted private lands planting services. The fund was originally designed so excess revenue dollars could be “banked” over years to help with large capital improvement expenses and/or grant leverage later. Unlike the general funds noted above, balances in this fund roll over from year to year and can grow over time, much like a savings account. These dollars have been critical in building Big Hollow and the Nature Center into what they are today. 

In fact, $50,000 of the $84,110 in General Basic Fund revenue (see #1 above) came from this fund. This is the fifth and final payment of a $250,000 loan the Board of Supervisors gave to the conservation department to improve the Big Hollow campground in 2017. That loan was the final amount needed to cover the $600,000+ needed to make all the sites full-hookup and add the shower house. 

But over the last few years, more and more of those dollars have been put towards covering operational costs in order to keep them off the tax-base. Today, all of Big Hollow’s operations - from the electricity and water that campers use, to the target boards at the shooting range, to the rock on the roads, and even two part-time staff members - is completely paid out of this fund. For the current fiscal year, we budgeted $192,000 in revenue and expected to spend $218,852, meaning we expected to spend $26,852 out of that carryover fund balance (our “savings”). However, $30,000 in revenue and $35,000 in expense was to be from a grant that we didn’t get this year to build a new pond at Big Hollow. So operationally, we are really looking at $162,000 in revenue and $183,852 in expense for a net over-spend of $21,852.

Obviously, spending more than you bring in is not sustainable and usually in the course of regular operations, we don’t. In some years, though, we do, when we apply some of our carryover fund balance - those funds we “banked” or saved over the years - toward a particular project. In this case, our operational costs increased on account of hiring two permanent part time staff to help us meet the growing demands of our increasingly popular park system. We knew, going forward, that we’d have $50,000 more dollars every year to spend since we would no longer be paying the county back for the loan mentioned above. 

So, that being the case, next year we would have been operating at a net “profit” in our Conservation Reserve Fund of $28,148, after the $50,000 in expense reduction offset the $21,852 operating loss we saw this year.

Make sense? Hang in there. Here’s where we start looking to next year and beyond.

For next year, the Board of Supervisors decided that our department will operate wholly out of the Conservation Reserve and General Supplemental funds. Combined, the department would get a flat allocation of $600,000 from the county tax base ($112,388 less than the current year’s allocation) to allocate however is needed. The rest of the department’s operations would have to be covered by revenue (of which there really is only $28,148 available, as noted above). We applaud this structural change, as we’ve always felt that a flat allocation is how state code says the department’s budget should be awarded by the Supervisors, rather than negotiating the budget line-by-line. It’s the allocation amount that is problematic. A flat allocation of $600,000 won’t even cover our staffing costs next year, let alone put gas in vehicles, mow grass, or put rock on parking lots and trails. 

We understand that the Board of Supervisors is tasked with fiscal responsibility for the county and places a high priority on keeping tax rates as low as possible while providing the services county residents want and need. We’re also aware that the county was faced with a 1.1% decrease in anticipated revenues for the coming fiscal year. However, as noted in a letter from the County Conservation Board members to the Board of Supervisors, “the most recent budget allocation places an uneven and potentially unworkable burden on the Conservation Department, and this may prove to be short sighted. The proposed reductions as they are carried forward, will make it extremely difficult to improve services to county residents. But more importantly, it will be challenging to maintain the facilities already in place that are proving increasingly popular with the public.” 

As it stands, we’re faced with a pretty significant financial shortfall, even before you consider that expenses will be significantly higher next year. What’s more, we know of no other department in the county that is facing these kinds of cuts. In assembling next year’s budget, we looked for every revenue source we could to cover operations. We’ve increased some fees. We pulled in a state grant, we’ll try to host more paid programs, and we’ll have to do some fundraisers. So expect to see some invites to those in the coming months.

But even after all that, we still expect to fall short if the Supervisors don’t increase the allocation, meaning we’re going to have to cut some expenses. We don’t know exactly how much the shortfall will be. We’ll know more after we see the revenues from this camping season. From your perspective, for the remainder of 2022, things will remain mostly status-quo as far as the parks and services we provide. Internally, we’ll trim administrative expenses where we can and we’ll do everything we can to build in more operational efficiencies. We’re going to cut the number of seasonal staff we hire in the summer by 75%. We’re going to cut the areas we mow as much as possible, converting some mowed sites - like Chautauqua Park east of Mediapolis - into wildflower-rich pollinator plantings. But we’ve been finding and implementing operational efficiencies like that for years. Our budget isn’t exactly fat, and hasn’t grown at the pace that our park popularity has. As you saw in the numbers above, we operate on a pretty thin margin. And if you’ve spent much time in our parks the past few years, you’ve likely seen how increasingly popular they’ve become.

Our last resort will be to start closing (or not reopening) certain parks and facilities in 2023, beginning with the ones that generate the least amount of revenue and/or cost the most compared to their public impact. First on this list will likely be Welter Recreation Area, our campgrounds along the Skunk River. This is our least-visited campground, most flood-prone, the farthest drive for our field staff (and we all know what fuel prices are doing), and costs about 10 times more to operate than it generates in revenue, all things considered. 

Also on the possibility list are some of the restrooms along the Flint River Trail, Hunt Woods, and Chautauqua Park. These parks generate no direct revenue but cost a fair bit to maintain when you factor in mowing and the staff and vehicle/equipment costs related to weekly cleaning and maintenance rounds. Closing the bathrooms wouldn’t substantially reduce those parks’ usability as they’re generally day-use areas seeing short-term visits. That’s the balance we’ll try to strike in these decisions. But we would rather close a park or facility completely rather than not maintain it to expected standards. 

Hopefully it won’t come to that. Hopefully, after we implement what savings we can and we see our revenue numbers for the year and have a better idea of what next year will actually cost, the Supervisors will agree to make up whatever shortfall there may be to get us by. We’ll have that conversation with them this fall, if not earlier. Hopefully also they’ll continue to make capital investments in our parks so we can generate more revenue in the future. They already allocated $100,000 from the county’s $7.5 million allocation of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to use as grant match to expand and improve campsites and other facilities at Big Hollow. We hope they’ll make additional allocations from those funds in the future to make improvements at the 4th Pumping Station Campground and additional improvements at Big Hollow and other county parks. Many of those improvements will generate sustained revenue to help cover operations into the future.

But, like they say, hope is not a strategy. So here’s where you come in.

Want to help? Here’s how:

  1. Contact the Board of Supervisors. Encourage them to invest both in our annual operations through budget allocations, but also in park improvements through allocations of additional ARPA funds. They can be reached by email at board@dmcounty.com or by phone at 319-753-8203 ext. 4.
  2. Volunteer. In light of the current budget situation, we’re in dire need of volunteers to help us staff the nature center, to help organize and host fundraising events, and to help with field work. And budget notwithstanding, we’re always in need of volunteers to help with various events such as the Youth Jamboree. To volunteer, contact us at conservation@dmcounty.com, by phone at 319-753-8260, or fill out our volunteer form online.
  3. Donate. Whether you buy a ticket to a fundraising event or make a donation to a park improvement project, your contribution is critical to moving county parks and conservation forward. Private donations are needed to match grants for things like Big Hollow Park Improvements, future phases of the Flint River Trail, and various other capital projects. And as noted earlier, we may have to increasingly rely on revenue and annual fundraising to help cover operational budget shortfalls. To learn more about how you can contribute, contact us or visit our Donate page.
  4. Camp. The bulk of our annual revenue comes from camping fees so the more nights you stay at one of our campgrounds, the more money will be put back into the county’s park system. 
  5. Spread the word. Do the people around you know how much county parks and conservation means to you? Share this newsletter with friends and family. Share our posts on social media or post your own pictures of our parks and events. We know the outdoors community around here is huge. If we collectively made our voices heard, we’d be unignorable. Find us on Facebook: Des Moines County Conservation, Starr’s Cave Nature Center, and Big Hollow Recreation Area.

We’ll plan to provide updates on the situation in future newsletters. Meanwhile, you can see our past budgets in all of our Annual Reports. County budgets are published on the Budget and Finance page of the county’s website.

published Friday, April 1, 2022

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