State parks could lose a third of staff

Layoffs: Discover Pass not fulfilling revenue promise

JORDAN SCHRADER; Staff writerDecember 7, 2011 

Nearly a third of Washington’s year-round state parks staff members are being notified this week that they likely will be laid off as a result of lagging sales of the new Discover Pass.

Seasonal jobs will replace most of the 160 positions targeted in Tuesday’s action by the State Parks and Recreation Commission. Some of the same employees might end up taking those jobs, but for only about five months of the year.

It will mean fewer hands for the work that occupies front-line staff during the colder months – the kind of work being done this month at Millersylvania State Park south of Olympia by park ranger John Lipparelli, who learned Monday that he might lose his job.

People ask, “Well, what do you do in the wintertime?” said Lipparelli, an assistant area manager. “And I like to tell them, well, that’s when the real work begins. We’re not so consumed with the public, so we spend the winters licking our wounds.”

There’s building maintenance, winterizing to keep pipes from freezing, training, emergency plans and other paperwork to be updated. Lipparelli last week spent hours blowing leaves and on Monday cleared trails of fallen trees. The park is “extremely short-staffed,” he said.

PASS SALES RESPONSIBLE

The main alternative to layoffs is closing parks.

But parks commissioners decided that option would just worsen the problem that is causing the cuts: Fewer people than expected are paying the fee lawmakers created this year for parking on state recreational lands.

The Discover Pass costs $30 for a year or $10 for a day. The parks agency now projects state agencies will receive nearly $24 million less than the $64 million the agency originally predicted for the first two years.

Most of that shortage affects parks, which receive 84 percent of pass revenues. (The Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Fish and Wildlife get the rest.) A optional $5 parks donation from drivers renewing license tabs has raised more money than expected, but slow sales of the Discover Pass still have left a $14 million shortfall at the parks agency.

The parks commission Tuesday agreed to bridge the gap by dipping into reserves and making $11 million in cuts.

“We’re not giving up on the Discover Pass, saying it’s a failure or anything,” said the acting deputy director of parks, Ilene Frisch. “It’s a brand new program that hasn’t had time to gel yet.”

But officials have to cut in order to cope because the parks agency – with the exception of some bridge money – was cut off from the state’s general fund this year.

State lawmakers and parks officials say they believe they can boost Discover Pass revenue by making it more user-friendly. One complaint they plan to address quickly is about a rule that ties the pass to a single car.

Sen. Kevin Ranker and Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, introduced legislation Tuesday that will allow the passes to transfer between two cars.

“Let’s hope that the changes we’re making will increase the revenue stream,” said Ranker, an Orcas Island Democrat. “If it doesn’t, then we need to come back together, and we need to have a very serious discussion” about revenue.

Parks officials say a November survey indicates the proposed transfer permission could boost revenue to original expectations once it’s fully in effect.

The parks agency also is paying $10,000 this month to advertise the pass as a holiday gift on billboards around the Puget Sound region, including one digital billboard.

A state union that represents parks workers, the Washington Federation of State Employees, said it is starting independent efforts to promote the pass to its members and to the public in online and radio messages.

In the meantime, about 120 field employees are being notified of potential layoff, Frisch said. As many as three-quarters of them will be replaced by seasonal workers.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader @thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/politics

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