Report: Parks system can’t survive without taxpayers

OLYMPIA — A new report spotlights an inconvenient truth for lawmakers about Washington’s public parks system: It cannot survive without help from the state’s taxpayers.

The agency is reeling from deep budget cuts and needs a reliable source of funds because it may never be able to live as lawmakers desire — solely on money collected from park visitors.

That’s the conclusion of a nine-page analysis delivered in November.

“Zero is impossible. There’s no way we can make it on our own 100 percent in the short run,” said Daniel Farber, director of policy and governmental affairs for the state Parks and Recreation Commission. “It is not a feasible, practical thing for us to do in the long run.”

Lawmakers set out four years ago to make users, rather than taxpayers, cover the day-to-day operating costs of Washington’s 117 parks.

They slashed the agency’s allotment from the state general fund and created the Discover Pass to make up the difference. But the Discover Pass hasn’t been the money maker it was envisioned to be, forcing lawmakers this year to use several million dollars of litter tax receipts to prevent park closures.

Parks commissioners in August 2012 warned lawmakers that the agency couldn’t be weaned from the general fund as fast as they demanded. This new report raises doubts about whether it can be done at all.

“To put it succinctly, State Parks is in an unsustainable financial situation,” the report states. “Temporary infusions of money are not a long-term solution. The increased reliance on earned revenues, coupled with the need to spend down reserves, perpetuates an environment of instability and uncertainty for State Parks.

“While the agency has been able to effect a modest increase in revenues, these simply are not sufficient to cover the costs of running the park system,” it states.

Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee, said he would like the agency operating without state aid but said commissioners must first be given more freedom in how they go about raising money.

“They still need our help,” he said. “I don’t want to cut them off. I’d like to give them the flexibility to market themselves to sell more Discover Passes and generate revenues.”

For example, he said, there are 80 to 100 agency-owned properties other than the recognized parks “that are not being used that could be used” to bring in dollars.

Farber said the revenue-generating potential of each is getting considered as part of a broader study of agency operations now underway.

The current two-year operating budget for state parks is $113.1 million, according to the report. Of that, $87.8 million is projected to come from earned revenues with $8.3 million from the state general fund and $11.7 million in litter taxes. The remainder is coming out of the agency reserves.

State parks earns money from three primary sources — camping and overnight lodging fees, Discover Pass sales and the $5 donations people choose to make when they renew their vehicle registrations.

Revenues from camping fees and Discover Pass sales are climbing, slowly, since the end of the recession. Donations, not surprisingly, have declined since the arrival of the Discover Pass.

Next June the Parks and Recreation Commission will complete its detailed look at how much money it believes is required to maintain a “healthy” state parks system and what’s being done to bring in dollars. It also may request permanent assistance.

“The tenuous state of the agency’s current financial situation underscores the State Parks Commission’s assertion that another predictable revenue source is essential, as part of a “right mix” of funding to help stabilize operations,” the report concludes.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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