Don't quit on effort to run state parks without subsidy

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Summertime,

And the livin’ is easy ...

Perhaps for some, but that line from the classic Gershwin song does not apply to the folks who are operating Washington state’s 117 parks.

The state Parks Department is under incredible economic pressure as lawmakers have mandated state parks operate without state subsidy starting in 2013. For the past few years the parks system has been trying to wean itself from state funding to become self sufficient — operate solely from user fees.

Unfortunately, the road to self sufficiency has been a bumpy one.

Seattle Times reporter Javier Panzar looked at the effort this week. He reported the key to generating sufficient revenue was to be the Discover Pass, a $30 annual or $10 daily parking permit needed to access parks and other state lands. However, a year after taking effect, the pass has brought in less than half of the $32 million expected.

Ouch!

Despite the lousy start, many lawmakers continue to insist the parks system operate independently.

“We are no longer getting a free check from the government,” said Don Hoch, state parks director. “We are now in competition. We have to provide people a service (users) want to come for in order to pay our bills.”

Hoch said the parks must strike a delicate balance between attracting younger users with new amenities such as Wi-Fi, developing new revenue streams and determining the level of service the parks can afford to offer.

But some lawmakers — and citizens — don’t see a self-sustaining Parks Department as viable. Their view is that significant state subsidy from all taxpayers is essential to keep user fees low enough so all can enjoy the park system.

It’s a reasonable stand.

It is unclear whether state lawmakers might change their minds about making parks self-funded.

State Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, said he would work with other legislators to restore funding to the parks system.

“It is a high priority for voters,” he said “For many people, those parks are the only outing that they can get, and we need to keep those (usage) costs as close to zero as we can.”

Zero? No. But there is room for some negotiation.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to operate a state parks system without any state funding. Lawmakers might have to provide some subsidize parks to keep the gates open in 2013.

Meanwhile, the state should continue to explore revenue ideas such as selling concessions at parks or selling naming rights for parks.

It’s too early to give up on independence.

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