State parks deserve taxpayer support

Plan to make parks 'self-supporting' unfair, short-sighted

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Recently the Washington State Parks Commission voted unanimously to reject the current policy directive to reduce to zero the level of general tax support it receives for operations. I am one commissioner who strongly supported this action and our request for continued state general fund support. I do not believe that the goal of 100 percent self-sufficiency is attainable or desirable. Our parks belong to all the people of the state of Washington. They are a critical part of our basic public infrastructure; contribute to the well-being of our citizens and our economy and should be open and accessible to all.

Our state parks program was thrown into financial tumult as a result of successive legislative and executive mandates that we reduce state general tax support to zero and become "self-supporting." General tax support was reduced from nearly two-thirds of our total operating budget to 12 percent in five short years. The Legislature did implement the first-ever "pay-to-use" Discover Pass but the legislators allowed virtually no ramp-up time prior to its implementation and its intended use as our primary revenue source. Considering the severe budget crisis the state has faced, all this is understandable, however in the end state parks was asked to do too much too soon. A major budget crisis with which we are still dealing was the result.

Let me be clear. Our agency is in transition and undergoing a historic transformation. We have changed historic staffing models. We have become more efficient. We are using more volunteers and "friends" groups. We will work with the State Parks Foundation to expand its role and responsibilities. We have enhanced Discover Pass marketing and pushed harder to increase other revenues. But even with all this, it is our belief that ongoing state general tax support is needed if we are to keep all parks open and operating safely. We believe that the very nature of our public purpose calls for some level of broad-based public funding that is shared by all Washingtonians. That is why we are asking the next Legislature for approximately $18 million in general tax support in the next two-year biennium.

In March 2013, our state parks system will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Working together, we can ensure that we can celebrate a healthy and vibrant system with 117 parks, 35 heritage sites, trails and other public assets all over our state that are operated well and wisely for the benefit of all the people of Washington.

Mark Brown, of Lacey, is a member of the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. Email: mark.brown@parks.wa.gov.