Washington State Parks Discover Pass falls short
By NATHAN WHALEN
Whidbey News Times Staff reporter
November 27, 2011 · Updated 6:09 AM
With taxpayer funding for state parks dried up, worried state parks officials are seeing user fees aren’t bringing in as much money as expected.
Five months after it was implemented, the Discover Pass, which provides money for Washington State Parks, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Natural Resources, raised $7.2 million through the end of October.
For the 24-month 2011-2013 biennium, officials had penciled in $64 million in Discover Pass sales, so the pass is not keeping pace with anticipations.
Deception Pass Park Ranger Jack Hartt admits the money raised from the Discover Pass isn’t enough to keep the park system functioning at its current level. The state parks commission is meeting Dec. 6 to discuss and approve possible additional cutbacks that could begin in January or February.
“Everything is on the table,” Hartt said. “Nothing is sacred except for keeping parks open.”
He said the park system could see further cuts to staff and there is talk of more administration cuts. Such cuts would be a “Catch 22.” While it would save some money, it would interfere with his park’s ability to support the Discover Pass. Hartt mentioned that Deception Pass State Park has collected approximately $350,000 in pass sales to date.
The state implemented the Discover Pass in July to provide an alternative funding source for the three agencies. Still, the state provided millions of dollars in other funding for the current biennium for assistance while the Discover Pass is implemented.
Washington State Parks receives 84 percent of the money collected from the pass. To use state parks, motorists have to pay either $10 per day or $30 per year.
A spokeswoman for Washington State Parks noted that the Discover Pass program wasn’t fully implemented until October and sales have been increasing. Park users can purchase the Discover Pass at Department of Licensing offices when they go in to renew their car tabs or at the separate parks.
“It started right in the middle of our prime season,” said Sandy Mealing, spokeswoman for Washington State Parks. “We didn’t have all areas up and running.”
In September, $62,500 was collected and that amount jumped to $162,000 in October, so she’s hopeful for a brighter future.
She added that the Legislature will work on allowing the pass to be transferrable between cars. The biggest complaint about the pass is that it is only good for one vehicle.
Mealing said a series of public service announcements will be broadcast to encourage families to purchase passes as Christmas gifts.
Many people are still making an optional $5 donation to state parks when they renew their vehicle tabs; however, money has declined since the Discover Pass started. State Parks collected more than $1 million in June 2011. That amount dropped to $685,000 in July, climbed sightly to $894,000 in August before declining to $677,000 in September.
Washington State Parks has already made reductions because of recent state funding problems. For Deception Pass State Park, one of six state parks located on Whidbey Island, Hartt said two staff members were laid off, its maintenance and operations budget was cut and long-term projects such as improving the park’s sewer system have been deferred.
Hartt said park closures are apparently off the table, because it would erode public trust in the Discover Pass by offering fewer locations where it could be used.
The Parks Commission meeting comes as the Legislature is looking at cutting 10 percent of the $17 million it allocated to the agency for the biennium. Those cutbacks would include further maintenance cuts, keeping current vacancies open and canceling the contract with the local sheriff’s office for beach enforcement.
Hartt said the proposed reduction isn’t as bad as the lower-than-expected revenue might suggest. And as he sees it, the money the state Legislature provided was going to dry up anyway.
“Basically it’ll be the users who’ll pay for parks,” Hartt said.
Contact Whidbey News Times Staff reporter Nathan Whalen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-675-6611 ext. 5058.