Report shows state parks system needs taxpayer help

EVERETT, Wash. (AP) - Four years ago, Washington lawmakers set out to make the state parks system self-sufficient - surviving on visitor fees alone.

A new report says it's not going to happen.

The nine-page analysis from the Washington Parks and Recreation Commission to the Legislature and the state Office of Financial Management makes clear the 117-park system can't survive without taxpayer support, The Daily Herald of Everett reported.

"There's no way we can make it on our own 100 percent in the short run," said Daniel Farber, the commission's director of policy and governmental affairs. "It is not a feasible, practical thing for us to do in the long run."

The parks benefit all residents of the state and therefore should be supported by a mix of user-generated revenue and general public support, the report says.

Beginning in 2009, the Legislature slashed the agency's allotment from the state general fund, forcing the parks system to make cuts in staffing and programs. Lawmakers created an annual park pass called the Discover Pass to help make up the difference, but sales have been lower than expected, forcing them to spend millions of dollars in litter tax receipts to prevent park closures. Litter taxes are taxes on manufacturers of items that contribute to litter problems, such as cigarettes and soft drinks.

"To put it succinctly, State Parks is in an unsustainable financial situation," the report states. "While the agency has been able to effect a modest increase in revenues, these simply are not sufficient to cover the costs of running the park system."

The current two-year operating budget for state parks is $113.1 million, according to the report. Of that, $87.8 million is projected to come from earned revenues - camping fees, donations and Discover Pass sales, for example - with $8.3 million from the state general fund and $11.7 million in litter taxes. The remainder - about $5.3 million - is coming from agency reserves.

By contrast, the 2007-09 budget included $94.5 million in general fund support.

Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee, said he would like the agency operating without state aid but said commissioners must first be given more freedom in how they go about raising money.

"They still need our help," he said. "I don't want to cut them off. I'd like to give them the flexibility to market themselves to sell more Discover Passes and generate revenues."

The parks commission is scheduled next June to complete a review of how much money it believes is required to maintain a healthy parks system.