Lawmakers warned of possible park closures

Staff writerApril 5, 2013 

Washington State Parks officials can declare victory in one sense: They have convinced budget writers that parks can’t survive on user fees alone.

But those same budget writers are looking to give a smaller subsidy for the next two years than the parks system is currently getting, and the parks commission says those reduced levels are unlikely to allow all 117 state parks to survive.

“I can’t sit here and tell you, in our centennial year, we can keep all our parks open. Rather, it is almost certain to result in park closures,” Rodger Schmitt, the chairman of the Parks and Recreation Commission, told lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday.

The Senate budget unveiled Wednesday would provide $16.4 million for parks in the 2013-15 biennium – more than 20 percent below the current state infusion and more than 80 percent below the peak of general-fund help for parks in 2007-2009.

Measured another way, however, the plan crafted chiefly by Republicans with input from Democrats is an increase. It pledges more parks money than what lawmakers had decided in the midst of the budget crisis two years ago they would provide by now: zero.

“We’ve increased the funding,” Senate Republican leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said Thursday.

Of the threat of closures, he said: “(If) you want to scare people, that’s what you do.”

The $30 Discover Pass created by the state in 2011 was supposed to allow parks to be weaned entirely off state taxpayer support. But disappointing sales of the annual park pass left the agency moving many rangers and other employees to part-time or seasonal work.

If the state subsidy were totally eliminated, staff told the parks commission they would need to close 30 parks and put 30 others on reduced or seasonal schedules. Sixty campgrounds would close or go to a shorter season and most day-use facilities would close two days a week, according to staff.

They warned it would be just the start of a downward spiral as closures reduce the number of people paying parking and camping fees.

But zero funding is the worst-case scenario, and it seems to have been avoided.

“We have near universal rejection of this notion of full self-sufficiency, and not needing to have some level of state general-fund participation,” commission member Mark Brown told the rest of the board at a meeting Wednesday. “That is significant, almost a paradigm shift, in terms of what we’ve been hearing from the Legislature for the past three years.”

The Republican-dominated Senate majority affirms the change in sentiment on its website: “The Senate budget recognizes the Discover Pass does not generate sufficient revenue to operate Washington’s state parks.”

But the commission argues it would take the larger amount Gov. Jay Inslee proposed last week, $23.7 million, to keep the park system and its staff intact.

Democrat Inslee called out the risk of park closures in his criticism of the Senate budget this week.

“The parks department is drowning,” Inslee said during a call-in show on KCTS public television this week. “It’s just not providing people anywhere close to the things that I grew up with, and I grew up loving the state parks, at Twanoh State Park where my dad, he took me out and showed me the critters on the beach.”

The commission says even the level in Inslee’s budget is not enough to allow for proper park maintenance. A backlog of projects has left sites falling into disrepair.

The board wants at least $27.2 million to keep from drawing down reserves or expanding that maintenance backlog.

Democrats’ lead budget writer, Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam, told the parks commission chairman he hoped lawmakers could help increase parks revenue by allowing discount rates for bulk Discover Pass sales to retailers, among other changes.

Hargrove also asked the chairman what he thought of selling unused lands, such as Miller Peninsula near Sequim, that have never had enough money to be turned into state parks.

Schmitt, the chairman, said there wasn’t enough land to raise significant money.

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