Idaho parks director Nancy Merrill said it won’t be easy to end general fund spending for parks, but she’s working with stakeholders to make it happen.
“This is not fluff or extra money,” Merrill said about the proposed $4.5 million reduction in state spending to the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation in the next budget. “We are down to our bare bones. This will not be easy and will be painful.”
Merrill discussed the plan to fill that $4.5 million dollar gap, which she and Gov. Butch Otter announced on Jan. 22. The plan includes raising some user fees that already rose at the beginning of the year. The price of an annual pass for a car to visit state parks went from $25 to $35 in January, and Merrill is calling for another $5 increase. A one-day pass went from $4 to $5 in January. Merrill is also calling for the fee to use a campsite to go from $2 to $3, and wants to raise fees for leasing cabins and docks, though she did not specify an amount.
“We have a responsibility to provide a park system, but not a free park system,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome. She said user fees make sense for funding state parks.
“Idaho state parks will continue to provide a tremendous value to the state of Idaho,” Merrill told Bell and other members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee Monday. She said the cost of going to state parks is well below other entertainment costs, such as going to the movies or playing golf. “Parks are a great deal for families,” Merrill said.
The plan now includes laying off 15 current parks employees and eliminating 10 vacant positions. The workforce reduction is expected to save $1.1 million in the next budget. Ten of the 15 employees who could be let go are in Boise. There are two layoffs each at Land of Yankee Fork State Park in Challis and South Thousand Springs State Park in Hagerman, and one ranger at Farragut State Park in Coeur d’Alene. The parks department is looking to fill six vacancies, four of which are in Boise.
Merrill also said that every state park is working on a five-year business plan to lower costs and increase revenues. Those plans must be approved by the parks board, which meets this week, before those plans become public. Merrill said each of Idaho’s 29 state parks has specific things to do.
Lawmakers on JFAC received a copy of the preliminary plans. “Anytime you’re looking ahead five years is a step in the right direction,” Bell said. She said the parks and recreation department has looked at a lot of changes since Otter’s recommendation to eliminate state funding was announced. “”They were hit right between the eyes,” she said.
One proposal being floated by the parks department is eliminating the day pass and annual pass to drive into parks in favor of a $5 fee on vehicle registrations that would go to parks. Montana and Washington have a similar fee, but Idaho voters would need to approve that switch, because the state Constitution currently requires all registration dollars to go to highway funding. Merrill said that plan is a concept idea that isn’t needed to balance the next budget.
Idaho parks get 4.2 million visitors a year, including 1.2 million out-of-staters, according to the department. Merrill said that amounts to a $40 million boost to the state economy. “Recreation is a big business for Idaho and local communities are the big benefactor,” she said. She added that the department is doing what it can to survive in the economic downturn. “Our board and our staff are committed to becoming a self-sufficient department… We are determined to be the stewards of the beautiful Idaho that we have.”