Critics question fee to keep state parks open

State parks officials and several legislators are cautious about a potential fee that could prevent parks from being closed.

The state Senate budget released this week is assuming a $5 car tab fee will bring in $28 million, which will offset budget reductions that include the closing of several state parks on Whidbey.

Virginia Painter, spokesperson for the Washington State Parks Commission, said staff doesn’t know how or when the new fee will be implemented.

“We don’t know the details of how it works,” Painter said.

Instead of people choosing to pay the fee, people would have to choose to “opt out” of the fee. The proposed fee is similar to the one used in Montana.

“To a great extent, our parks will not be closed,” state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano, said. She said there hasn’t been a vote yet on the proposal.

Painter said the legislation assumes that 50 percent of car owners will participate and pay the fee, which will raise the $28 million needed to pay for funding losses. If 40 percent participates, then $23 million would be raised.

The state currently has an “opt in” car tab fee, which Painter said raised $700,000. She said is a good participation rate for the first year of the fee’s existence.

She noted that 88 percent of the residents in Montana participate in the state’s “opt out” car-tab fee.

The state park system is under pressure to make significant reductions. Park officials originally came up with $10 million worth of cuts. Then, they were asked to make another list representing an additional $13 million worth of cuts.

That second list picked Whidbey’s Fort Ebey and Fort Casey state parks as possible mothball targets. Leaders on Whidbey Island were surprised to see the two popular state parks on the list and they’ve been talking to parks officials and legislators about the importance of keeping them open.

Painter said the Senate budget includes a $28 million reduction, which represents an approximately 28 percent of the parks budget.

Haugen said she didn’t know when there would be a vote on the proposal. She said such items normally come to a vote later in the session.

Two state representatives from Whidbey Island have reservations about the opt-out nature of the the proposed fee.

“I think that would be confusing to a lot of people,” State Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, said, adding she would probably vote against the fee.

Bailey’s concerns were echoed by a fellow state representative from Whidbey Island.

“One concern is will it take advantage of the most vulnerable,” Rep. Norma Smith said of the fee.

Haugen said people will understand the fee when they renew their car tabs.

“It’s going to be clear that it’s optional,” Haugen said.

Both state representatives had ideas for other ways to keep parks open.

Smith advocates hiring a private contractor to collect donations on behalf of state parks. Smith also pointed out that there is $100 million in land acquisitions between state parks, Department of Fish and Wildlife and Department of Natural Resources that could be saved.

Bailey said the state parks could save money and keep parks available by coming up with a low-maintenance plan.

Smith said the current proposal doesn’t look holistically at state parks’ effect on the community. It costs approximately 68 cents per visitor to operate Fort Casey State Park, but more money in taxes and money flowing into local businesses would be lost if the parks were closed.

“It makes absolutely no sense,” Smith said of the idea of closing parks.

Haugen had also sponsored a bill which would have added a 1 cent per $1,000 assessed property value tax to fund state parks. That tax would have brought in an estimated $14.1 million.

The state senator said her proposal never made it out of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

“It’s not going to move this year,” Haugen said, adding that she will sponsor the proposal again in the future. She said the tax would help state parks avoid funding problems that seem to come up every couple of years.

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