Parks looks to legislature for funding

Fort Casey Park Aide Chris Bailey tends to a riding lawn mower. Washington State Parks officials are asking the state for $18 million to help pay for park operations.  - Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times
Fort Casey Park Aide Chris Bailey tends to a riding lawn mower. Washington State Parks officials are asking the state for $18 million to help pay for park operations.
— image credit: Nathan Whalen/Whidbey News-Times

With Discover Pass revenues coming in far below what was predicted, Washington State Parks officials are looking to the legislature for more taxpayer dollars.

Without the extra funding, more jobs in the park system could be at risk. The department already made reductions that cost the jobs of more than half of state park staff members on Whidbey Island.

The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission plans to ask the legislature for $18 million for the 2011-13 budget. That would be an increase from the $17.2 million in general fund dollars the legislature approved for the current budget cycle.

That money was approved to sustain the park system until revenues from the Discover Pass grew. Park users can pay $10 for a one-day pass or $30 for a yearly pass to access all state parks.

However, the state has collected $17.7 million in Discover Pass revenue, which is far below the $64 million projected. Of that amount, 84 percent goes to state parks while the remainder helps the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Natural Resources.

Sandy Mealing, spokesperson for Washington State Parks, said approximately $8 million will fund discounts the park system is mandated by the legislature to provide. Washington State Parks waives entry fees for foster children and their caregivers, senior citizens on limited income, disabled people and disabled veterans.

Jon Cummins, manager of Whidbey Island state parks, said he doesn’t know of any business that would stay afloat after providing so many discounts. He added those discounts help keep the park accessible.

“The parks are supposed to be for everybody,” Cummins said.

The largest chunk of state park’s $150 million budget for biennium comes from donations and fees. Only 12 percent currently comes from the state’s general fund.

A tenuous state budget and declining revenues have forced park officials to make significant cuts in recent years. In 2008, state parks had 595 employees. By 2012, that number was down to 395. Mealing said the cuts included a layer of management and the elimination of programs.

More than half the state park staff members are gone from Whidbey Island. On Central Whidbey, the management of the parks was consolidated along with the elimination of several ranger positions and some maintenance staff. Rangers working on state parks are also commissioned law enforcement officers.

Cummins said the park system has been able to hire seasonal positions to help during the busy summer season, but two of those people only have authority to enforce Discover Pass violations.

In addition to law enforcement functions, rangers manage campgrounds, maintain and repair historic structures, fix plumbing problems, attend to visitors’ needs and clean campsites.

The park system will have a budget request sent to the state Office of Financial Management this fall and the next legislative session begins in January.

One thing is for sure, officials have ruled out closing any state parks. Mealing said the state parks need to remain open to encourage people to continue buying the Discover Pass. Once some parks close, the park system’s funding problem would be exacerbated because it could discourage people from buying the pass.

“In order for the Discover Pass to be successful, we have to keep parks open,” Mealing said.


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