OLYMPIA – Jan. 27, 2010 – A state parks donation program tied to vehicle license tab renewals is bringing in less than projected but enough to keep state parks open, provided no General Fund reductions are made beyond those identified in the Governor’s 2010 Supplemental Budget.
That’s the conclusion of a report made by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission to the state Office of Financial Management and legislature.
Bill 2339, signed into law in July 2009, required the Department of Licensing to collect a donation to benefit the state parks system as part of motor vehicle registration applications or renewals, unless a vehicle owner chooses not to provide the donation when paying his or her bill. The legislation was a response to the state’s dire economic situation and a groundswell of public outcry to the Legislature opposing proposed budget reductions that would have resulted in the closure of up to 40 parks. The budget stipulated that state parks would remain open so long as adequate donations are collected. Budget language also directed State Parks to report the status of the program in early 2010.
To meet the Legislature’s donation projection laid out in the 2009-11 budget, State Parks needs to receive a cumulative average of $1.2 million per month over the 24 months of the biennium. The cumulative average collected through the end of December 2009 was $1.1 million.
“So far, the donations are coming in under the line of what’s needed, but we’re squeaking by,” said Rex Derr, director. “The Commission is optimistic about the program because we know how much people love their state parks. We’re very grateful to the Legislature for the program.”
The enacted 2009-11 state biennial budget reduced State Parks’ General Fund budget by a total of $52 million (of $100 million General Fund in 2007-09.) To help mitigate the reduction, the budget provides State Parks the authority to spend up to $26 million in projected donations and an additional $2 million in projected revenue increases – but these moneys have to be collected first. The Legislature also shifted $19.4 million from the Resource Recreation Account and the Non-highway Off-road Vehicle Account (NOVA) to help fill the State Parks operations gap.
Derr said the donation program profoundly changes the way state park operations are funded. Historically, the agency has relied mostly on real General Fund tax dollars. Over the years, the General Fund portion of the budget gradually decreased, to be replaced with an increased portion of the budget in the form of spending authority, that is, authority to spend earned revenue from fees if collected.
In 2007-09, General Fund tax dollars made up 66 percent of the State Parks operating budget, with 24 percent in spending authority and about 10 percent in dedicated funds from federal and other programs. Under the new donation program, only 30 percent of the State Parks operating budget is made up of dollars in hand in General Fund, while 47 percent of the budget is authority to spend projected donation collections as well as earned revenue from overnight stays, watercraft launch use and other fees – money that is not yet in hand.
In 2009, the State Parks Commission made required reductions in its budget by freezing travel, hiring and spending; cutting headquarters and region programs and staff; and keeping vacant positions open in parks, headquarters and regions. In addition, the agency also consolidated offices (going from four to three region offices) and moved one remaining region office into the agency headquarters building.
The Governor’s Supplemental Budget identified $3.2 million in reductions. State Parks had planned for approximately $2 million in reductions; the remainder involves layoffs and holding positions vacant.
“We are managing our cash flow very carefully, on a month-to-month basis and keeping a close watch on the donation averages,” Derr said. “We also have increased our reserve fund from $3 million to $6 million – something we think is essential for managing a budget that’s now based largely on money not yet in hand. As long as donations continue coming in close to the level projected in the budget and our General Fund is not reduced further than what we’ve identified for the supplemental budget, we believe we will be able to keep state parks open.”
The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission manages a diverse system of more than 100 state parks and recreation programs, including long-distance trails, boating safety and winter recreation. The 96-year-old park system will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2013.