Clark County parks paying for fee removal?

Issues — from graffiti to alcohol use — have been on the rise since commisioners made six sites free to visit

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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photoHal Bauder, Clark County parks maintenance crew chief at Lewisville Park, examines a bathroom facility Thursday damaged by vandals. "It's a bit unusual for us," said Bauder about the graffiti.

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When parking fees first disappeared at Clark County’s Lewisville Regional Park, Tori Denfeld said, she was pretty happy with the news.

Denfeld said the park has been a bastion of safe family recreation for her six children for years, and she and her husband made sure to budget for the parking pass to use the location.

Denfield said she hadn’t heard that Clark County commissioners had been considering removing the fees this year — a campaign promise introduced by freshman Commissioner David Madore. So when Madore and Commissioner Tom Mielke voted on the night of April 2 to remove the parking fees, which ranged from $2 to $8 depending on the park, Denfield said she was initially pleased.

“We’re a large family with not a large income and any time something is cheaper, well, that’s great,” said Denfield. “I thought it was nice at first. But then it went downhill.”

In the past few months, trips to the parks have been memorable, but not for the open fields to run about in or playtime in the Lewis River.

Rather, she is seeing folks smoking pipes in the open, drinking hard liquor near their cars and other general bouts of nonsense that make her uneasy.

“One day, someone just had a fire going out in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “There was no fire pit or anything.”

And the only correlation she has seen to the change in activity is the removal of the fees.

“It seems like that fee was just enough to keep things safe,” she said.

More garbage, drinking

Hal Bauder, the county’s lead maintenance official at Lewsiville, says he isn’t shocked by that story. In fact, it’s becoming a theme.

“A lot of people who come down here are regulars who we’re on a first-name basis with,” Bauder said. “I’m hearing the same thing from them.”

Bauder has worked at Lewisville since 1999. He talks about the new problems he’s seen since the removal of fees as he drives to the first of three locations that has recently been tagged with graffiti.

Vandals were particularly hard on one of the restrooms. A painted scrawling of “420” — a drug culture reference — is still visible despite hours of work to fade the digits.

“It’s going to have to be repainted,” Bauder said. “And this has only been for what, about a month and a half maybe? It’s too soon to tell what will happen, but the word will get out to all the kids soon that the park is free. I see more issues down the road.”

Bauder is one of 10 maintenance staff at the 168-acre park. And he says they’re doing their best to keep things up to par there.

But every day, it seems to be getting worse, he says.

“Time-wise, we’re not going to be able to do anything but clean up,” Bauder says. “And we’re seeing a lot more drinking. If you want to see how bad it gets, come out here Sunday morning and just look at the trash.”

Increase in police calls

Since parking fees disappeared at Lewisville, the Clark County Sheriff’s Office has seen a bit of an increase in calls between April 3 and July 10 compared to previous years.

“At Lewisville, it’s obviously a banner year this year for calls,” said county crime analyst Brian Salsig, who compiled the statistics at The Columbian’s request. “It’s the most we’ve had, and the fact is, the numbers are trending upward, so that’s a concern.”

But take the numbers with a grain of salt, Salsig says.

While police calls are up slightly at Lewisville, Vancouver Lake has seen a drastic rise in calls for service.

And while those two parks are on the rise, Salmon Creek Regional Park is seeing a decrease over last year.

Those three parks are the busiest of the six that had parking fees removed in April. In total, the three parks generated 141 calls between April 3 and July 10 of this year, compared to 117 during the same time frame in 2012.

Adding in the numbers from the other three parks, there have been 159 service calls in the same time period in 2013 compared to 133 calls in 2012.

“(The date range) is pretty small,” Salsig said. “It would be nice to have the whole summer’s data. And the weather has a lot to do with it at times. So without going into each call, it’s hard to say why the change.”

Salsig also said the data set is a bit incomplete. Some incidents, such as an officer’s telling someone to put away a beer or a group of kids’ scattering when a patrol car arrives, don’t result in a recorded call for service.

That means the data don’t fully reflect all the problems maintenance folks or park visitors might be seeing. And to that end, Salsig says what deputies see on the ground is just as important as the count of calls.

Deputies’ reports

Clark County Sheriff’s Office Chief Mike Evans says he believes activity at the parks is way up based on reports from deputies.

“What I have is anecdotal evidence that deputies are reporting to their superiors that a lot more people are going to the parks, and there is a lot more disregard for park rules,” Evans said. “Mainly, I’m hearing of reckless driving and alcohol use.”

In June, Mielke asked Evans by email if more patrols were being assigned to the areas after hearing two complaints about the parks.

“The commissioners asked if we are doing more spot checks and the answer is no, because I don’t have the staff,” Evans said. “I’m disappointed, really, because of what I said at the (April) meeting.”

Evans told commissioners he worried about the use of the county’s funds, as the general fund now pays for the estimated $325,000 annual shortfall resulting from the removal of parking fees.

“That’s two and a half deputies, fully funded, cars and everything,” Evans said. “During the last budget process, (Sheriff Garry Lucas) knew the county revenues, and we wanted the county to be able to tackle higher-priority kinds of issues with the money. We wanted to take the high road (with not asking for funding.)”

Further, Evans worried the increase in activity would further strain the patrol units the Sheriff’s Office has working the area.

Now, he’s just hoping the commissioners address what he believes is a rising problem.

“Based on the increase in disruptive activity, to the point that now people don’t want to take their families to the park, the strategy is inadequate,” Evans said. “We are hearing complaints, and those concerns have been raised to the commissioners. The next step for me is to monitor it.”

Evans said he hopes commissioners consider a way to add more patrols to the parks. Or, perhaps, to reinstate the fees, as he thinks the removal of the parking pass was the catalyst for the problems.

“I haven’t seen a study that would verify that, but it’s a pretty simple question to answer,” Evans said. “We didn’t have these problems when there were fees and we do after. When the fees went away, these problems showed up.”

Madore responds

Madore responded by email Friday, saying he had checked with Clark County Sheriff’s Sgt. Shane Gardner, who reported he had received no complaints.

Gardner, the community outreach officer who often works with neighborhood associations, confirmed that he hadn’t heard of any issues at the parks where fees had been removed.

But he deferred to Evans on the matter, as he said his job doesn’t translate directly to regional county parks issues.

“I wouldn’t necessarily see it because the people who use it aren’t necessarily from the area or a neighborhood association,” Gardner said. “Those parks draw people from all over.”

Madore said in his email that staff has not reported any issues at the park.

“If we ever get a call about a problem in our parks, our diligent staff checks it out. Each time, our staff has reported that our on-site staff did not observe any problems and that our parks are in the best shape ever,” Madore said.

But when Bauder responded by email to a query from Public Works Director Pete Capell on the validity of two complaints commissioners received, he said, “these complaints are valid.”

“We are seeing more speeding, (garbage and) litter, off-leash (and) graffiti,” Bauder wrote on July 1. “Not used to seeing tagging out here. When my people leave for home, seems to become a free-for-all.”

Madore adds in his email that: “Many citizens have called to express their appreciation that we’ve restored the free use of our beautiful parks.”

And in a follow-up email, Madore said he would take a look at any issues while still working to implement a program that may alleviate some of the strain on the system.

“One program I am still trying to implement is to get park hosts involved at each park,” Madore said. “They are volunteers with their own travel trailer that is very successful in many places. We will continually work to solve problems and make improvements. We all have a role to play to make this community a better place to live.”

Commissioner Steve Stuart, who voted against removing parking fees, said he expects the board to look at the matter and discuss what to do in the near future.

“It is clear there are emerging problems that are disturbing and have to be dealt with,” Stuart said. “There is a clear correlation to when the fees were removed and when the problems came about. We need to have a quick conversation with law enforcement and park staff, who are our eyes on the ground.”

A message left for Mielke was unreturned as of Friday night.


Erik Hidle: 360-735-4542; http://twitter.com/col_clarkgov; erik.hidle@columbian.com.