PASCO -- All options are under consideration as the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission starts planning for a worst-case scenario of cutting an additional 20 percent of its budget.
That could include closing state parks, although that was not the preference of staff at a commission workshop Wednesday in Pasco. The commission also is meeting today in Pasco.
"We need to keep parks open so people choose us," said Larry Fairleigh, assistant director of parks development.
The state's parks system is transitioning to dependence on fees paid by those who visit them rather than taxpayer money distributed by the Legislature. In July, the state began requiring a Discover Pass at an annual cost of $30 or a daily charge of $10 for each vehicle entering state parks.
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Gov. Chris Gregoire has said that Discover passes should be the commission's top priority and that the program has to be successful, said state parks Director Don Hoch.
But if parks are closed, the state runs the risk of selling fewer Discover passes, said commission staff. The parks, which include 700 historic buildings, also would be in danger of vandalism.
The commission has begun planning for a cut of up to $30 million of about $148 million in the two-year budget for state parks.
The state Legislature budgeted about $17 million for the current biennium to help the commission as it transitions off the general fund, but the commission potentially could receive no general fund money after that. Its reserve fund also could be rolled back into the state coffers.
In addition, the commission fears that Discover Pass sales may be less than anticipated and that because of the Discover Pass, fewer people will check the $5 donation box when they renew their car tabs.
At Sacajawea State Park in Pasco, visits dropped 50 percent in the first month the Discover Pass was required.
If the state starts closing parks that don't pay for themselves, it would have to close 77 of the state's 116 parks to make up the entire $30 million, which is not an option under consideration, said Mike Sternback, state parks operations director.
"Closing parks is counterproductive," said Fairleigh, as he proposed other issues for the commission members to consider. "We must offer an experience the public will choose."
Some agencies, including county governments, are willing to take over certain state parks. However, if the commission members consider transferring some state parks to other government agencies, they first may want to consider the income-producing potential of the parks, Sternback said.
Now, about 70 percent of the state parks budget covers labor costs, Sternback said. That includes $30 million for park rangers, $12 million for park aides and $12 million for maintenance workers.
The state may want to further evaluate its seasonal staffing and make sure it is making efficient use of current job classes, matching job tasks to job pay levels, he said. The agency already has cut staff by about 15 percent.
The commission also has responded to the Washington State Office of Financial Management with proposals to cut its $17 million in general fund revenue by 10 percent as the state faces a forecasted $1.6 billion state budget gap. Proposals include delays in hiring and canceling an ocean beach law enforcement contract.
"No one strategy will accomplish what we need," Sternback said. But the state must maintain an adequate number of parks to preserve public support and must maintain park service at a level that keeps people coming to the parks, he said.
The parks commission meeting today starts at 9 a.m. at the Gjerde Center on the Columbia Basin College's Pasco campus. Public comments will be taken.
Topics on the agenda include setting fees. Proposals include a 3 percent increase for cabin rentals, increasing the annual boat launch fee from $70 to $80 and increasing annual moorage permit prices to $4 a foot.