Could new vehicle fees keep state parks open?
The scenic trails, tranquil waters and open space that Washington state park-goers have enjoyed for years could soon come at a higher price for those visitors. Under Gov. Chris Gregoire's two-year budget proposal, state parks would need to earn $64 million in new revenue — likely meaning user fees — during the upcoming biennium or risk closure.
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
State parks• Washington has 119 developed state parks.
• 10 parks, including Steamboat Rock and Cape Disappointment, earn enough through camping fees and other charges to cover operating costs.
• The current two-year parks budget totals $142 million; about $60 million comes from the state general fund, $16 million in federal money, $20 million in donations and $46 million in fees.
OLYMPIA — The scenic trails, tranquil waters and open space that Washington state park-goers have enjoyed for years soon could come at a higher price.
Under Gov. Chris Gregoire's two-year budget proposal, state parks would need to earn $64 million in new revenue during the upcoming biennium or risk closure.
It's part of the governor's plan to plug the multibillion-dollar hole in the state budget and make users pay for more state services. With the new park fees, state tax dollars ultimately would no longer support the parks.
"If we don't raise the money, we're not going to have a park system," said Virginia Painter, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, which runs the state's parks.
One solution, Painter said, is an annual vehicle access permit of at least $20 implemented by the state's Department of Licensing. When residents renew their vehicle license tabs, they could buy the permit if they plan to use any of the 119 developed state parks. Visitors still would have to pay fees to camp or use certain recreation facilities.
Those who purchase the permit apart from vehicle-license renewal would be charged an extra $10 or so. Out-of-state residents likely would pay a different fee, and people who walk or bicycle to the sites wouldn't need a permit.
Some House Republicans question whether a vehicle permit fee can bring in enough money to replace state funding.
"I think you'll find it falls short, particularly if a significant number of people choose not to purchase it," said state Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, the ranking minority member on the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
Painter said the parks commission will explore other options, but a vehicle fee currently is the most viable solution. "It just makes sense that the people who use the parks would pay for them," she said.
The parks system could partner on a pass with the state Department of Natural Resources and Department of Fish and Wildlife. The latter already requires a vehicle permit to enter its sites.
That idea is gaining ground in the Senate.
Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island, plans to introduce a bill that would create an annual vehicle pass and day-use permit for all recreation sites managed by Fish and Wildlife, Natural Resources and the State Parks and Recreation Commission. Most of the money would go toward state parks.
"Let's make it simple for the user of parks or state property, and let's just have one pass," said Ranker, who chairs the Senate Natural Resources and Marine Waters Committee.
Under his preliminary plan, the annual pass would cost $40 per vehicle — or $30 if purchased through vehicle-license renewal or registration. The pass would be free to residents who complete 40 hours of volunteer work for the state agencies within a year. A day-use permit would cost $10.
The bill is scheduled for a Senate committee hearing Feb. 2.
Striking a balance
Charging user fees for parks can be tricky.
State parks attract nearly 40 million visits per year, but attendance and revenue could plummet if the commission charges too much for a vehicle permit. Yet, parks wouldn't raise the money needed if fees are set too low.
"We're always going to be concerned (about attendance), but by the same token we need to keep a state parks system running," Painter said. "It's a balancing act."
Along the freshwater shoreline and among towering cedars, some visitors at Millersylvania State Park near Olympia were divided over paying new permit fees.
Tacoma city firefighter Nels Chandler, 34, said he remembers coming to Millersylvania as a child and swimming in the lake. Chandler, who was enjoying the park with his 4-year-old son, said he would pay a new park fee.
"Something like $20 a year seems real reasonable to me. ... If it was a lot more than that, I definitely would have to think about it," he said.
At the park's boat-launch area, Curtis Gibson was soaking in the view of Deep Lake with his fiancée. He called the spot his place of serenity, but it's not something he said he would pay extra to use.
"I wouldn't come here nearly as much," said Gibson, who has visited since he was 12.
Lawmakers repealed a $5 day-use parking fee in 2006 after attendance at state parks dropped by about 16 percent throughout the three years the fee was in place.
The fee was replaced with a $5 donation program collected when people renew vehicle license tabs. The donations were projected to raise $28 million in the current budget cycle that ends in June, but so far have fallen short.
A handful of states raise park revenue through special license plates or vehicle-registration fees, according to the National Association of State Park Directors.
Montana took the lead in 2003 when the state adopted a vehicle-registration program that tacked on an extra $4 to use state parks. Those not planning to visit parks can opt out of the fee.
Other states have begun exploring similar vehicle fees, said Philip McKnelly, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors.
"Everybody is scrambling (to find revenue) because state budgets have been as bad as I've ever seen them," McKnelly said.
Grim budget reality
Washington park officials paint a grim picture of what could happen if they don't generate more money soon.
Under the governor's budget proposal, parks would receive $20 million from the state in the next two-year budget period — about one-third of what they now receive — to transition off the general fund.
After that, parks would be on their own to raise about $84 million in the 2013-15 budget period to cover costs, park officials said. That doesn't include federal money or existing fees for camping, boat launching and other activities.
"I'm not sure if it's doable with the magnitude of parks we currently have in the state of Washington," said Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee. "We'll need a combined strategy to deal with this, and it might mean less parks that operate more effectively."
The state parks commission has already approved transferring a handful of parks to local government agencies to trim costs.
The system also includes a large chunk of day-use parks that don't generate nearly as much revenue as parks with campgrounds. Only 10 state parks earn enough money to cover operating costs.
Without raising more money, as many as 100 state parks could close or risk property damage and vandalism because of inadequate oversight and maintenance, parks officials said.
Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for Gregoire, said the governor didn't have much choice when she proposed cutting the state park system loose from the general fund.
"While the governor values the state parks system and recognizes it as one of the finest in the country, in a time like this, it's hard to prioritize recreational activities like parks above basic education and health care," Shagren said.
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