Plans to close state parks put on hold

BUDGET: Commission looking at raising fees to cover shortfall

Joseph Turner; The News Tribune

Washington State - March 20, 2002 - Kopachuck State Park apparently won't be closed. Nor will any other state-owned park sites.

But the state Parks and Recreation Commission probably will raise boat-launch, camping and sewage disposal fees and is likely to cancel its leases on 13 other properties - including Lake Cushman in Mason County, which is owned by Tacoma Power.

That's the recommendation the staff will make when the commission meets Thursday in Spokane to finalize its budget, said parks spokeswoman Virginia Painter.

Most of the 13 parks targeted for closure are in Eastern Washington and are owned by other governments, such as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Tacoma Power.

State parks officials are asking those governments to cover part of the operating costs for those properties.

"If we can't get some operating funds and end up pursing these canceled leases, we would close them in the fall," Painter said. "We'd take care of the property until we turn it over."

Pat McCarty, Tacoma Power's generation manager, said he met with state parks officials on Tuesday, but they haven't resolved what will happen to Lake Cushman.

"We met. We're talking," McCarty said.

The state had been looking to close 10 additional parks if the Legislature had made deeper cuts to the agency's budget. Those included Kopachuck in Pierce County, Tolmie in Thurston County and Nolte and Olallie parks in South King County. About 60 people attended a hearing last week in Lakewood to protest the possible cuts.

However, parks officials say they can address the $2.8 million cut in the state budget by raising fees and closing only the leased parks properties, she said. The proposed fee increases include:

* A $1 increase in standard overnight camping, to $14 from $13.

* A $1 increase for campsites with utilities, to $20 from $19.

* A $1 increase in boat launch fees, to $4 or $5 from the current $3 or $4.

* A $2 increase in trailer dump stations, where boaters and recreational vehicle owner dump their onboard sewage, to $12 from $10.

If approved by the commission, the higher fees would take effect in April.

Overall, they would raise $430,000 a year for the parks system.

Parks officials aren't expecting any more cuts to their budget, but that remains a possibility because Gov. Gary Locke has not yet signed the revised $22.46 billion state operating budget. He's looking to cut as much as $31 million from the budget because the Legislature failed to increase liquor taxes - one of the ways the Legislature was planning to balance its budget.

Painter said parks commissioners still have no plans to impose a new $5 visitor parking fee at any state recreational area, as they have threatened to do in the past.

If parks are closed, a gate would be placed across the entrance where practicable, restrooms would be locked and utilities would be shut off, she said. There would be no staffing except for periodic security checks, she said.

The parks commission will get an additional $9.5 million this year to pay for repairs and renovations to utilities and buildings, but none of that money can be used for operating expenses, such as salaries for parks employees.

Most of that money will be paid to private contractors who are hired to fix up park properties as part of the Legislature's economic stimulus plan to create jobs.

The parks commission's operating budget was only one of dozens of agency budgets that were reduced as Locke and the Legislature closed a $1.6 billion gap in the state's overall $22.46 billion operating budget.


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