Lawmakers make plea for state park rangers

Agency urged to stall layoffs of nearly half of full-time force




Local angle

Proposed cuts to the Washington State Parks system could have a big impact on Clark County’s two state parks, Battle Ground Lake and Paradise Point.

Both parks now operate with a staff of two year-round employees. This month’s proposed cutbacks could reduce that to one — leaving just a single park manager at each park throughout the year, plus seasonal help. Local parks officials have said that will make it nearly impossible to keep up on needed maintenance and keep parks functioning smoothly.

Last week’s letter asking for a delay in those cuts was signed by 12 lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans among them. No Southwest Washington legislators signed the letter, but it’s unclear if any were approached. Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said Wednesday he had not been asked.

OLYMPIA — Concerned about the massive layoff of park rangers, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers has asked the state Parks and Recreation Commission to delay sending out notices until after the Legislature meets in January.

The Dec. 14 letter raises the issue of public safety after nearly half of the 189 full-time permanent park rangers are laid off or given the option of seasonal employment.

Park rangers are fully commissioned law enforcement officers, and respond to incidents in state parks, along with their many other duties.

“If we take half of the park rangers away, we’re never going to get those people back,” said Rep. Mike Armstrong, one of 12 lawmakers who signed the letter. “These people are very qualified for what they do. I just want the commission to be extremely cautious about it, and not do it until they absolutely have to,” the Wenatchee Republican added.

But a Parks Commission spokeswoman said Tuesday a delay would cost the agency about $750,000 each month, and is not likely to happen. Final notices are expected to go out Wednesday to employees whose jobs are affected, said spokeswoman Virginia Painter.

She said the notices are complicated due to civil service requirements. Although 160 employees received notices that their jobs were at risk early this month, “in the end, we won’t be giving out that many notices,” she said.

Current plans call for the state’s 116 parks to go from 189 to 106 full-time year-round rangers, and from 76 to 60 full-time permanent construction and maintenance staff, Painter said. A majority of people who are laid off will have the option of taking a seasonal job with the agency, she said.

“In the end, we think there won’t be that many fewer people on the ground during the high (summer) season,” she said.

The letter also charges that front-line staff are disproportionately affected compared to managers, but Painter said the last major layoff already reduced many managers and employees at the agency’s Olympia and regional offices. She said the manager-to-field staff ratio is currently 1-to-17, and will be 1-to-18.5 after layoffs.

One state senator and 11 representatives signed the letter, including Armstrong and Reps. Bill Hinkle, Joel Kretz, Judy Warnick and Shelly Short, who are also from north-central Washington.

Armstrong said they are not trying to dictate what the commission does. But after meeting with park rangers, he said, he’s hoping the state Legislature can come up with an alternative means of funding the agency.

The agency is being weaned off the state’s general fund, and in mid-2013, will be expected to operate without any tax revenue.

This year, the Legislature authorized the Discover Pass to generate new funding for parks, but the state hasn’t sold enough of the $30 annual pass to keep parks operating at current levels.

Armstrong said he’s hoping legislation can be introduced in the coming session, or in 2013, offering new source of revenue to maintain and staff state parks. “We need to find a better way to fund our state parks,” he said.

He said he worries that parks already are slowly deteriorating, and that a ranger won’t be available to calm things down when visitors get out of control.

“I think our parks are amazing in the state of Washington, and the employees do an amazing job. They’ve been running our parks on a shoestring,” he added. He said with only 500 permanent employees, state parks see millions of visitors a year.

Painter said her agency is proposing to change the Discover Pass so that it will cover two vehicles instead of one, and is hopeful that more people will buy the pass if the Legislature approves the change.

But the change is not likely to bring in enough funding to fill the current gap, she said.

“This is really hard on us, so I understand the concerns,” she said. “And we know it’s not sustainable. But this is what we feel we need to do to keep things open.”