Politics & Government

Car tabs and $5 for state parks, if you're willing

MILLERSYLVANIA STATE PARK – Dozens of state parks in Washington state were on the endangered list this year as a result of the state’s budget woes. Now their fate rests in the hands of drivers who will decide whether it’s worth $5 to help keep them open.

Motorists who once had the option of donating to state parks when they registered their cars will now pay $5 automatically unless they pointedly subtract the money.

Whether enough people will let the donation stand could mean the difference between whether parks like Millersylvania State Park – with its camping sites, 3,300 feet of freshwater shoreline and hiking trails – stay open or are mothballed.

As she washed dishes at her campsite with the help of her 4-year-old daughter, Julie Peterson of Burien said she doesn’t want her family tradition of visiting the park every year to end.

“I know times are tight,” said Peterson, whose husband lost his job as a welder last October. “I would still pay $5 to keep the parks open.”

The state is banking on at least 50 percent of drivers to not opt-out of the extra cost, so that it can bring in an estimated $28 million through 2011 to keep parks like Millersylvania from being mothballed.

That expectation may be optimistic, since under the previous “opt-in” model, only 1.4 percent of people donated, with the state collecting just over $635,000 a year.

Washington’s new law – which takes effect with September renewals – is modeled on one that took effect in Montana in 2004. Michigan is considering a similar plan. Montana’s law is stricter, with drivers who want to opt out having to fill out a separate form that indicates they won’t use their vehicle to go to a state park. Washington’s law has no such requirement.

Chas Van Genderen, Montana state parks administrator, said that 80-85 percent of people in Montana pay the $4 fee, bringing in about $3.2 million a year to the state’s 54 parks.

“It’s been a well-embraced concept,” he said.

Washington is just one of several states that have had to find ways to keep parks open and maintained in a recession that has hit state budgets hard. In California, about 100 of 279 state parks also face closure, some as early as Labor Day. In Utah, some state parks will begin closing two days a week, and in Kansas, grass cutting at parks will be less frequent.

Philip McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Parks Directors, said that while closures of state parks is the worst-case scenario, lack of money will eventually lead to degradation of those that do stay open.

“What the public would see first would be maybe the restrooms not getting cleaned as often as they normally did, or the trash not being picked up,” he said. “I suspect people will see smaller numbers of parks and smaller amounts of services provided by the parks.”

It’s not just state parks that are struggling.

Earlier this month, King County officials announced plans to mothball 39 parks, locking bathrooms and gates and fencing playground equipment. The move is expected to save nearly $5 million and help cover a projected budget gap of $56 million.

Of the more than 120 state parks, 40 parks faced losing funding, which meant the state would either try to find a city or county government to take them over, or mothball them.

State Parks Director Rex Derr said that once the list of parks that could be closed was made public, there was immediate outrage.

“We heard that loud and clear: Don’t close our parks,” he said. “Across the country there is a high and general appreciation for state parks. I think a lot of people now are recognizing what’s at risk with parks in this down economy.”

Derr said they’ll get their first indication of whether that concern over park closures translates into dollars in October, when they’ll be able to assess the first returns from September renewals.

Nearly 480,000 renewal notices have been sent out for people whose car tags expire in September, according to Sandy Mealing, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.

At first, state parks officials were averaging 250 to 300 calls a day from people who were upset about the increase. Mealing said that once it was explained to them that it was a donation they could deduct, tempers cooled and the number of calls have steadily decreased.

The opt-out donation replaces the prior opt-in donation program that started in 2006, when the Legislature repealed a $5 day-use parking fee at state parks.

Republican Rep. Gary Alexander of Olympia supported that previous law, and said he’s voluntarily donated $5 ever since. But when his tags come up for renewal later this year, he’ll subtract the donation.

“I’ll support my parks in a different way, but this is a fee, and I don’t think it’s dealt with in the right way,” he said.

Alexander said that most people will look at their renewal notice and just see a number and pay it, without reading that they have an option to opt-out of the donation.

“I think there’s going to be some backlash,” he said. “People are going to be irritated by this policy.”

For 80-year-old Jerri Marskstone of Sammamish, who was RV camping at Millersylvania with her daughter, three grandchildren and 12-year-old Pomeranian, Baby, a $5 donation is nothing compared to the idea of her favorite state park closing.

“The middle class and lower class have lost enough already,” she said. “Don’t take the state parks away, too.”