State Parks Dept. braces for $30M budget gap

The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission has outlined a strategy to prepare for a budget gap as high as $30 million.

Historically, Washington State Parks has received 75 percent of its operating support from general fund tax dollars. In the current biennium, State Parks received $17 million general fund tax dollars as a one-time “bridge” off of the general fund. To replace lost tax dollars, the Legislature implemented the Discover Pass, a parking fee to access all state-managed recreation lands. But the Commission must have a strategy that allows the agency to respond to a “worst-case scenario” if the existing $17 million general fund dollars are cut or if Discover Pass and other revenues fall short. The strategy includes dramatically cutting costs, changing service levels in the short term, and building capabilities for a better-resourced and sustainable future.

“The situation would be bleak if Discover Pass and other revenues do not increase,” said State Parks Director Don Hoch. “Our goal is to keep parks open, but we need the help and support of the public to do that.”

The unfortunate consequences of a $30 million revenue shortfall include: Parks’ reserve fund would be substantially reduced; agency staff would be significantly decreased in numbers, even from current levels; law enforcement response times would be longer in parks; degradation of natural and cultural resources; significant increase in deferred maintenance problems, meaning costlier repairs later; and impact on visitor services.

The second part of the strategy is for the agency to reinvent itself for a successful future. Work has already begun on some of these elements, and the remaining elements will be brought to the Commission for review in December 2011 and early 2012. Staff will engage the public and explore ways to flourish in the long term. Elements of the long-term strategy include expanding fundraising and volunteer efforts; developing marketing and promotional capability; developing additional business and enterprise capability; developing new operating and staffing models, which may include a different mix of skill sets; and redirecting Capital Program investments to public health and safety and revenue generation.

During the upcoming legislative session, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission’s message to the Legislature and Governor is to retain and strengthen the Discover Pass as a principal source of operating funds, and retain the existing $17 million general fund “bridge” to support state parks and keep them safe for public use.