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State parks on Whidbey lose half their staff

Budget cuts announced this week will decimate staff at state parks on Whidbey Island and elsewhere.

The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission said the parks system will be restructured to emphasize seasonal help during the summer.

Because of that change, about half of the park employees working at Whidbey’s state parks could lose their jobs. Pink slips are scheduled to go out Dec. 19.

Deception Pass Park Manager Jack Hartt said staffing levels at his park will dive from 15 employees to eight and the other manned parks on the island will suffer in the same fashion.

“Every park on the island will be affected similarly,” Hartt said, adding that some of the employees whose positions will be cut have 30 years of experience. The park manager jobs at Fort Ebey, Fort Casey and South Whidbey state parks will be consolidated into a single position.

The restructuring means 160 park employees statewide were notified their positions are at risk, said Virginia Painter, spokeswoman.

Hartt said instead of the permanent employees, seasonal staff will be hired to five-month positions and will likely be students rather than the experienced, permanent staff.

The state parks system is currently changing the way it receives money. Rather than being reliant on the state Legislature for funding, the Discover Pass was instituted last summer. Park users pay a vehicle fee of $10 per day or $30 per year.

The Legislature projected the fee would bring in $65 million, which would benefit the Washington State Parks, Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Natural Resources. The park system would receive $54 million. The Legislature provided $17 million as bridging money until the Discover Pass gains in popularity. By the next biennium, the park system must be reliant on income received from fees and donations.

Unfortunately, only $7.2 million in Discover Pass revenue was collected through October, which obviously isn’t on pace to bring in the projected  $65 million. The park system has been working for months to develop a contingency plan should revenues fall short.

Park closures are not being considered. Officials say parks need to remain open to encourage people to purchase the Discover Pass.

To help make ends meet, the commission also approved lowering operating reserves to $8 million from $12 million, which is enough to fund two months of operations.

Downsizing staff during the slow season affects the maintenance that takes place then, Painter acknowledged.

Some workers notified that their position is at risk may still have jobs. Depending on their experience, they can take a different position and “bump” someone with less seniority.

Locally, Hartt said he’s negotiating to reduce the amount of seasonal help so he can add an additional yearly position to deal with continuing maintenance.

“We’re still reeling from the effects,” Hartt said. The parks staff will have difficulty providing other important services such as law enforcement and assisting with marine rescues.

Hartt emphasized that the remaining staff is still committed to the park and ensuring visitor stays are enjoyable.

“We’re doing our best with the money we are given to provide a service to the public,” Hartt said.

 

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