Legislators hear of $64 million State Parks shortfall, possible options
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State Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, left, talks with Washington State Parks Policy Director Daniel Farber at a meeting Monday. Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

FORT FLAGLER — The Washington State Parks system is facing a $64 million shortfall in its efforts to build a healthy and sustainable system, legislators were told as they toured state parks in East Jefferson County.

Members of the state House of Representatives, including Rep. Steve Tharinger, a Democrat from Sequim, toured Dosewallips, Fort Worden and Fort Flagler state parks Monday with State Parks staff, which provided options for raising more money for parks.

“It’s easy to think that we are all sharing our successes with you today, that things are all OK and that the funding cuts across the years haven’t had an impact, but they have,” said Shelly Hagen, State Parks finance director.

“Across the agency, there is work that’s not being done that is not easy to see at the surface,” she said.

Hagen said the operating budget for the parks system has fallen from $134 million in 2009 to $107 million allocated for 2015.

“The agency is operating under capacity,” she said.

“Work is not getting done throughout the system and this is not sustainable.

“We continue to be caught in a dilemma between the need to put more dollars into operations and the need to preserve a reasonable find balance and this is driven by the uncertainty of the budget situation.”

The figures presented Monday were biennial, or pertaining to a two-year period; the parks budget is allocated by the state Legislature on alternate years.

The budget will be addressed in the upcoming legislative session which begins on Jan. 12.

Attending along with Tharinger — who represents the 24th Legislative District, which covers Jefferson and Clallam counties and part of Grays Harbor County — were House Deputy Majority Whip Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien; Zack Hudgins, D-Seattle; Shelly Short, R-Republic; and Ruth Kagi, D-Shoreline.

Along with Hagen were State Parks Director Don Hoch, Assistant Directors Mike Sternback and Peter Herzog, Policy Director Daniel Farber and Communications Director Virginia Painter.

Parks commissioner Rodger Schmitt, a Port Townsend resident, also attended the Fort Worden and Fort Flagler legs of the tour.

Hagen said that $154 million is needed each biennium to sustain a healthy park system.

Of that, $88.9 million, or 42 percent, can be counted on from various funding sources.

With $20 million projected from general taxes, Hagen said this creates a funding gap of $44 million.

The figures were added together to illustrate a target funding goal of $64 million.

Farber outlined five revenue-generating options, although two of these still left a shortfall.

“We have heard lots of ideas about how to generate revenue, none of them easy or necessarily popular,” Farber said.

“We’ve come up with five options for dealing with the funding gap based on current realities, that there are three ways the state parks system earns revenue.”

The three sources are overnight accommodations, $40 million; the Discover Pass, $30 million and the vehicle opt out licence renewals, $14 million; generated each year.

“What we are seeing nationwide is more and more states looking at vehicle donation fees as a part of their finances,” Farber said.

The first option, projected to raise $55 million to $68 million, is to add a $5 mandatory parks fee to each vehicle license and lowering the price of the Discover Pass.

“With seven million vehicles in the state this would cover immediately cover the gap and have some left over for other state agencies,” Farber said.

The second option, which could raise between $70 million and $100 million, doubles the mandatory license fee to $10 and adds the opt-in choice while eliminating the Discover Pass entirely.

This would be simpler to administer but would generate sufficient funds to meet the gap, allocate money to other state agencies and local governments.

The third option leaves the Discover Pass intact while instituting “high nexus taxes” on certain park related functions so the people paying for parks are those using them.

One example of this would be a per-night RV tax with lower rates for in-state residents, Farber said.

The fourth and fifth options would require extra help from the general fund and other revenue sources since they are projected to raise only $16 million and $10 million each biennium.

They both involve raising the opt-in licence fee to $8 per year while adding pricing and incentive systems, low income protection and the application of opt-in and Discover Pass options for new vehicles.

“These are options we created to show people what we could do if there were no taxes available,” Farber said.

“They show what we can do for ourselves.”

“We’ve used our money wisely, we’ve reduced our staff but still managed to do great things,” Hoch said.

“We’ve done a great job with limited resources and hopefully we can do better.”

“We still need to do a lot of repairs,” Sternback said.

“With the budget challenges we have about $200,000 in deferred maintenance every year that needs to be addressed.”

Painter said the presentations were not designed as funding pitches, that the meeting was requested by the legislators as a way to learn about what is happening within the park system.

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Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or cbermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: July 01. 2014 6:52PM
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