Tapping into Clark County's general fund to pay for eliminating park fees is a terrible idea that's built on a flawed premise.No one should be surprised that County Commissioner David Madore wants to do away with parking fees at five county parks and three boat launches. He campaigned on that promise. But when the rookie elected official mentioned on Wednesday taking $325,000 out of the county's general fund to make up for the resultant revenue loss, his efforts devolved from intriguing to absurd.
First, county commissioners should be looking for more ways — not fewer ways — to have those who use services pay for them. And that's user fees.
Second, the common-sense benefits of user fees are especially true in areas such as parks, which are not mission critical in the overall county government. That's why parking fees were instituted for county parks in the first place, to lessen the burden on taxpayers and keep the general fund properly prioritized toward essential services such as law enforcement.
County parking fees are $3 for cars, $6 for vehicles with trailers and $8 for buses at Frenchman's Bar, Lewisville, Salmon Creek Park/Klineline Pond, Vancouver Lake and Wintler parks, and at three boat launches. Other county parks are free.
Third, the wisdom of user fees should be especially evident to a conservative commissioner such as Madore. Last year, the county took in $373,000 in park fees and spent $90,000 collecting the fees. Developing and maintaining parks — especially in a community that places a high value on parks — is not free. Asking park patrons to pay a portion of that cost is reasonable. Shifting the responsibility to the general fund — at the expense of other county obligations — is pound-foolish.
There's nothing wrong with campaign promises. Every politician makes them. But Madore was elected to serve all county taxpayers, and as Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission member John Caton told county officials on Wednesday: "We often see campaign promises go away like a bad smell with the wind."
On parks issues, Madore is still in the learning process. During the campaign he circulated a flier with a photo showing Madore on a bicycle next to a sign reading, "Discover Pass Required." But the Discover Pass is for state parks, and the park in the photo was Battle Ground Lake State Park. Madore, running for a county office, later explained the flier by saying it was meant to criticize a county trail that uses the parking lot at Battle Ground Lake State Park. So the education continues.
On a Jan. 24 radio show, Madore said he didn't yet have details on how money would be saved by removing park fees. "One thing about being a commissioner is you can't get in the weeds and get in the details," he said on the radio show. But to understand fundamental principles of the county's general fund is a reasonable expectation that citizens have of their county commissioners.
County residents love their parks and are willing to pay for them. In 2005, voters in unincorporated areas approved a parks district that produced 25 new parks, with 10 more still to be built. Last year, more than 500 people paid $40 each for the annual passes to county parks.
More than a parks issue, this is about the county budget. Far too often, politicians in both major parties almost cavalierly chirp, "Let's just take it out of the general fund." That only makes budget problems worse.
Madore's proposal on Wednesday — to schedule a public hearing to discuss this matter — did not draw a second. That's a good thing. If he persists in trying to keep this campaign promise by tapping into the general fund, he should at least specify which county programs or services should be cut to pay for keeping his promise.