State Parks officials can declare victory in one sense: They have convinced budget writers that parks can’t survive on user fees alone.
But although the Senate budget would provide some state money — $16.4 million over two years — that is more than a 20 percent cut from the current state infusion and more than 80 percent less than the park’s share of the state general-fund at its peak in the 2007-2009 budget. The parks commission says the reduced levels are unlikely to keep all 117 parks open.
“I can’t sit here and tell you, in our centennial year, we can keep all our parks open. Rather, it is almost certain to result in park closures,” Rodger Schmitt, the chairman of the Parks and Recreation Commission, told lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday.
Similar gloomy sentiments hung in the air at a parks commission meeting going on at about the same time, where staff presented board members with a series of stark possibilities.
When the Legislature created the Discover Pass in the middle of a budget crisis in 2011, the $30-per-year parking pass was supposed to allow parks to be weaned entirely off state taxpayer support. But commissioners heard Wednesday that if state funding were entirely eliminated, it would mean the closure of 30 parks and part-time closure of at least 30 more. Another 60 campgrounds would close or go to a shorter season and most day-use parks would close two days a week. And staff warned that would just be the start of a fiscal death spiral as closures reduce the number of people paying parking and camping fees.
That worst-case scenario seems to have been avoided. “”Almost everybody wants to help us,” commissioner member Mark Brown, who has been lobbying the Legislature, told the rest of the board. “We have near universal rejection of this notion of full self-sufficiency, and not needing to have some level of state general-fund participation. That is significant, almost a paradigm shift, in terms of what we’ve been hearing from the Legislature for the past three years.”
“The Senate budget recognizes the Discover Pass does not generate sufficient revenue to operate Washington’s state parks,” the Republican-dominated Senate majority says on its website. The spending plan written by Sen. Andy Hill and other Republicans with input from Democratic budget writers provides enough money “to ensure that public assets are maintained and recreational opportunities are continued,” the website says.
But the commission says the Senate funding level would still leave parks vulnerable to closures and that it would take the amount Gov. Jay Inslee last week proposed providing, $23.7 million, to keep the park system and its staff intact.
Democrat Inslee called out the risk of park closures in a statement criticizing the Senate budget. And in a call-in discussion on KCTS public television this week, he recalled growing up loving the state parks ever since his dad “showed me the critters on the beach.”
“The parks department is drowning. It’s just not providing people anywhere close to the things that I grew up with,” Inslee said.
The commission says even the level provided by Inslee is not enough to allow for proper maintenance. A backlog of projects have left some sites falling into disrepair. The board wants at least $27 million to keep from drawing down reserves or expanding that maintenance backlog.
UPDATED figures at 3:50 p.m.
UPDATE 4/5: Inslee’s budget office sent a letter to senators today saying their budget would likely close 10 to 20 parks either permanently or temporarily.