The good news Idaho Parks Director Nancy Merrill had for lawmakers at the department’s budget hearing this morning: Idaho has sold more than 95,000 of its new parks passports in the first 12 months of sales, “bringing in over $1,077,000 – and that’s new money for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation.” The new $10 season passes, sold with vehicle registrations, also have brought more visibility and more visitors to state parks.
The bad news: Costs are rising, for basics like personnel, utilities and fuel. So that’s where the money’s going, rather than to improve or expand parks. “Our list of deferred maintenance needs continues to grow,” Merrill told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. So for next year, the parks department is requesting state funding for specific park needs, from repairing septic systems to fixing roofs, fishing platforms and a waterslide. Gov. Butch Otter has recommended a $1.87 million boost in state funding for parks next year, which looks like a whopping 140 percent budget increase. But that’s nearly all taken up with a one-time allocation for $1.6 million in specific replacement items and repairs at state parks. Otter also recommended $250,000 for a new entry road from State Street to popular Eagle Island State Park, which has become a year-round destination.
“We’ve worked hard over the past few years to reinvent ourselves and change the way we do business to keep each of these special places open,” Merrill told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “Our greatest need is to keep and take care of what we now have. We have done so much with so little, and we need these modest requests we bring before you today.”
This year’s state budget for parks was only $1.3 million in general funds, a tiny piece of the overall $33.4 million cost of running the parks. In fiscal year 2008, the parks budget was $17.7 million in state general funds. Under Otter’s budget proposal, state funds for parks next year would come to $3.2 million.
Merrill said the parks have been generating new funds by selling firewood, renting paddleboards, canoes and sand-boards, marketing parks as venues for weddings and special events, adding partnerships and concessions, and adding camper cabins and other revenue-generating improvements. She said RV license fees that were tapped as a “bridge” funding source still are being tapped. “Until we come up with a new revenue source of that amount, we will have to continue to use those,” she said. About $1.5 million a year in RV funds are being used “to keep the parks going,” Merrill said, which is permitted by state law.