Budget knife hits parks

The “Dear Joe” letter arrived 10 days ago.

The two-page letter from Snohomish County told Joe Miller he was a valued employee in the parks department. But it also said there wasn’t money in the 2005 budget to pay for his park ranger job.

Now, Miller and others are wondering what will happen to county parks if reductions that target four park ranger positions are approved by the Snohomish County Council this week.

The council begins final budget deliberations today. If the work doesn’t wrap up today, the budget is expected to be approved Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest.

Making the rounds

Miller, 77, has a Santa Claus voice and a wisp of white whiskers to match. He’s been an assistant park ranger since 2000, and spends much of his time patrolling Squire Creek Park, a 34-space campground in an old-growth forest west of Darrington.

“Everybody gets to know that they don’t get away with anything illegal here,” Miller said.

Without Miller making regular rounds, he’s worried that transients, vandals and others could take over the campgrounds.

Janet Stites has been a regular camper at Squire Creek since 1997. She comes up from Everett almost every weekend from March through October.

Last week, she came up to see the salmon that are spawning and fighting like angry sisters in the water next to the picnic pavilion. She’ll usually bring a book to read by the creek, or some sewing to do.

“I like this campground a lot better than all the others. It’s more isolated; it’s clean,” Stites said.

“It’s just peaceful and quiet. I can relax up here.”

But the 53-acre park’s isolation would be its downfall if there weren’t regular ranger patrols, she and others say.

People who live nearby – there are about 20 homes that can only be reached by a county road that cuts through the park – can easily recall how the campground was overrun by squatters when it wasn’t patrolled.

Stites agrees the park would have problems if a ranger wasn’t on duty.

“It would be a mess. There would be drinking, drugs, probably,” Stites said. “I wouldn’t come here.”

Cuts unimaginable

Jerry Smith, the senior park ranger in Region 4, which spreads from I-5 east past Darrington, said it’s unimaginable that the county is cutting ranger jobs as the county builds more parks to handle a growing population.

The county has five ranger regions, and the job cuts will also hit rangers in Region 1, which stretches from Stanwood south to Everett’s northern edge, and Region 5, which includes Marysville to Snohomish.

“Not everybody who comes to the park are nice people,” Smith said, holding a two-inch thick stack of this year’s citations.

Besides patrolling, rangers also handle park maintenance on a daily basis and make sure park fees are paid.

Smith knows what the park was like when there weren’t rangers on patrol.

“If Joe’s gone Jan. 1, you’ll be amazed at how many people will move in here,” he said. “I’ve come up here, and we’ve had squatters in here totally trashing the place. Chickens, dogs, cats, kids, buses. Trees chopped down.”

“This park will go to hell in a handcart,” Smith said.

‘Tough medicine’

The cuts to the ranger ranks add up to about $205,000 in salaries and benefits in a total county budget of about $549 million.

Reardon has said his “tough medicine” budget has the cuts needed to close next year’s budget gap of $13.4 million.

His proposed spending plan cuts 80 jobs from county government. But because of the expanded jail and other added jobs, the number of county employees overall will actually grow by 29 full-time positions next year.

Miller got his layoff notice Nov. 12. A total of 22 layoff notices have been sent out since June.

Not all of the suggested job cuts will happen, however, because Reardon’s proposed budget won’t be approved as-is by the County Council.

Following a public outcry, council members have said they’ll restore the Master Gardeners program, for example.

The council hopes to begin approving today the more than two dozen ordinances that are needed to pass next year’s spending plan.

Reporter Brian Kelly: 425-339-3422 or kelly@heraldnet.com.

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