As revenues continue short of projections, state parks leaders are telling Washington lawmakers they can’t do it alone.
The Washington State Parks department plans to seek $27 million from the general fund for the 2013-15 biennium. Parks officials say the support is needed to keep afloat an agency battered by budget cuts in recent years. It would also add stability to a department betting big on Discover Pass user fees, which haven’t settled into a predictable revenue stream.
The $27 million is a request, not a guarantee. Legislators have previously said state parks may get no general-fund money in 2013-15. But that’s not an option if state parks are to remain a viable program, according to a department report released earlier this year.
The state Parks and Recreation Commission reiterated that stance at a recent meeting in Vancouver.
“We’re really at a crossroads,” said state parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter.
State Parks have grappled with major cutbacks, seeing state support erode from $98 million in 2007-09 to just more than $21 million in the current biennium. The department’s self-generated revenue has climbed significantly, but not enough to avoid lopping a third of its permanent full-time positions off the payroll since 2008.
The cuts have been felt at local levels. Six of 15 full-time positions have been eliminated at Riverside and Mount Spokane State Parks. That leaves both parks being operated by fewer people than the number that operated Riverside alone two years ago.
Parks officials have looked to managers and rangers to determine the best use of limited resources, officials said. The agency has recently experimented with automated Discover Pass pay stations at a handful of state parks.
That’s a work in progress, assistant operations director Mike Sternback said during the commission meeting. The agency may use the technology at additional parks in the future, he said.
The agency is trying to avoid closing any of Washington’s 116 state parks. Keeping them open remains a top priority, Painter said, particularly now that people are being asked to pay more to directly support them.
One problem: The Discover Pass, hastily rolled out last year as a new revenue source, hasn’t met expectations. The program – requiring state park visitors to pay $10 for a day pass, or $30 for a year – was projected to bring in $23.4 million in the first year. It managed only $13.2 million.
The trend may not have found its normal level yet. Discover Pass revenues in July 2012 were less than July 2011, the month the pass was introduced. August 2012 came in about the same as last year. Those numbers are affected by many outside factors driving park visits, Painter said, including weather and gas prices.
“It’s really difficult to project,” Painter said.
It’s unclear what help state parks will get from Washington’s general fund after lawmakers return to Olympia. State revenue projections aren’t rosy, and plenty of other agencies are already jockeying for position ahead of the 2013 legislative session.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Painter said of her department’s budget outlook. “We’re going to just hope for the best.”
Outdoors editor Rich Landers contributed to this story.