State parks scrambling to ‘Discover’ funding resources
Washington State Parks patrons purchasing multiple Discover Passes may soon find some monetary relief if a bill, approved by the Senate on Friday (Jan. 27) allowing the use of one pass for two vehicles is accepted by the House and signed by the governor.
It would have an immediate effect following a six-month introductory period that produced an estimated $9 million less revenue than expected from the single-vehicle pass approved by legislative action last year.
With a projected $11 million budget shortfall, parks officials are already faced with the task of balancing their budget in order to keep parks open.
Making cuts has become routine for most state-funded agencies and parks officials have adopted a restructuring proposal that would reduce expenditures to avoid park closures.
The Washington State Parks Commission approved the proposal Dec. 6, but it won’t go into effect until Feb. 15.
“The proposal basically takes a look at our operations,” said Virginia Painter, director of public affairs at Washington State Parks.
During the past few years, the state has decreased the amount of funding it has appropriated to state parks. In 2007, state general fund support to parks was $98.5 million for the biennium. In 2011, it dropped to $17.18 million. As a result, parks officials have relied on funding from park user fees and the Discover Pass to meet expenses.
The Discover Pass, launched July 1, 2011, is required on vehicles that access and park on recreation lands or water-access sites managed by Washington State Parks, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“Our intention last session was that state parks don’t get any state general funding,” said Rep. Kevin Van De Wege (D – 24th District, Sequim). He sponsored the original Discover Pass legislation in the 2011 session.
This session, Van De Wege has sponsored two bills that would amend the Discover Pass—House Bills 2295 and 2373. These bills would amend the current Discover Pass statute to allow transferability of the pass between two vehicles registered at the same address. The Discover Pass would also replace the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s vehicle-access pass.
The legislation includes a section stating that the parks department must provide a 50-percent discount on the price of the Discover Pass if purchased with certain fishing and hunting licenses or with the purchase of a campsite permit.
The two bills are identical except that House Bill 2373 would also eliminate the Parks and Recreation Commission and would replace it with a director-led agency. The commission is a board of seven volunteer citizens who are appointed by the governor. The board sets public policy, guides and governs the parks agency.
“My goal is to make the Discover Pass as user-friendly as possible,” said Van De Wege. He believes that, if purchasing and using the pass is made convenient, it would boost sales.
Original projections estimated that the Discover Pass would earn $15.6 million for state parks through December 2011, but actual revenue was only $6.5 million.
According to Ilene Frisch, acting deputy director of the Washington State Parks, the main issue with the Discover Pass is transferability between two vehicles. There are a number of bills in the Legislature this session that propose to resolve this issue.
Sen. Kevin Ranker (D – 40th District, Orcas Island) is prime sponsor of SB5977, which was approved by the Senate Friday (Jan. 27). The bill has move into the House and is scheduled for a public hearing before its Committee on General Government Appropriations and Oversight on Feb. 2.
According to Painter, the adjusted projected revenue from the revised Discover Pass for the biennium jumps to $41.76 million.
While state parks officials are depending on revenue from the Discover Pass to prevent park closures, it is not enough to make up for the budget shortfall.
Painter stated that close to 80 percent of the parks' operating budget is spent on labor. When implemented, the parks' restructuring proposal would flatten the organizational structure of the parks department.
The plan eliminates three regional directors and six operational managers, but creates six district operational managers positions, two in each region, said Painter.
The state parks system is divided into three regions: Southwestern, headquartered in Thurston County; Northwestern, headquartered in Burlington, and Eastern, headquartered in Wenatchee.
The plan also proposes that the park system shift to seasonal labor during the off-peak months from October to April. This would affect staffing park rangers’ positions.
According to Painter, seasonal employment would be offered to 66 park rangers, while 18 positions would be eliminated. Park aides would be hired to offset the reduction in rangers.
Don Hall is a park ranger at Wenatchee Confluence State Park and is opposed to the restructuring plan.
“We have some very dedicated people who have busted their fannies to keep these parks open,” said Hall. “We have seen reduction in forces over the years and we have worked diligently so that people would not see a decrease in service and so that they would continue to come to the parks. We have taken a lot of our own time to be out there to make sure we’re maintaining the facilities, make sure we’re patrolling the facilities so they have a clean and safe place to come to, but with these reductions to staff, that’s not going to happen.”
The parks department plan would keep 123 full-time year-round rangers, and maintain seasonal rangers on duty during the peak season to ensure the safety of park visitors and to enforce the Discover Pass, Painter explained.
Meanwhile, Washington State Parks officials are going to work on marketing the Discover Pass and the parks system, said Painter.
“We think it’s in the best interest to keep parks open,” said Washington State Parks Commissioner Steve Milner.