June 23, 2012 in City

State parks getting less help from volunteers


OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — At a time when the parks system has seen severe budget and staff cuts, the amount of volunteer hours at Washington’s state parks has dropped sharply over the past few years.

Volunteer hours in 2011 were 40,186 fewer than in 2010 and 66,453 fewer when compared to 2009, the Everett Herald reported Sunday (http://bit.ly/LInTEu).

Hours contributed by volunteers nose-dived in 2011 to their lowest level since 2005, a fall that coincided with budget cuts that forced layoffs of managers and employees involved in overseeing efforts to attract the unpaid helpers.

“It’s significant. Forty thousand hours is a whole bunch of goodness gone away,” said state Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, chairman of the House capital budget committee and a frequent parks visitor.

State parks officials blame the drop on the troubled economy and mandated background checks for volunteers, not dissatisfaction with the facilities or disaffection with the Discovery Pass entrance fee program.

But probably the single biggest discouragement has been the requirement under a 2010 state law that volunteers working with money, or with vulnerable populations such as children and seniors, undergo a background check with fingerprinting.

“It is there for a good reason,” said Virginia Painter, director of public affairs for the Washington Parks and Recreation Commission

The state agency makes the applicants pay for their own checks.

Dunshee didn’t quibble with the law but wanted to know why the state agency isn’t picking up the tab. He said its leaders probably decided they couldn’t afford to do so with their strained budget.

Higher gas prices are another reason, she said. Specifically, there were fewer hosts at state parks last year. These volunteers are typically retirees who arrive in a recreational vehicle to spend several weeks in a park and, during their stay, carry out tasks such as picking up trash and assisting visitors.

“Any year that gas prices go up, volunteer hours are down,” Painter said.

In 2011, they racked up a total of 271,260 hours, which worked out to the equivalent of 130 full-time employees, according to the report prepared by state parks officials.

A year earlier, the total was 311,446 hours. That drop of 40,186 hours added up to about 20 full-time workers.

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