Major changes in state parks fees coming

OCEAN SHORES — The state Parks and Recreation Commission on Thursday authorized major changes in camping and other parks fees designed to offset the financial burden of legislative budget cuts and sagging sales of Discover Passes.

The commission, meeting at the Ocean Shores Convention Center, unanimously adopted state Parks staff recommendations to begin a “market-based system of competitive rates for facilities and services.” The revisions to fees and policies also establish the state Parks system as “a primarily fee-for-service agency,” according to an executive summary.

“I’ll be the first to say that we’re all treading into these new waters together,” said Assistant Parks Director Larry Fairleigh, noting that fees in the future may be set based on “what will the market bear.”

The decision allows the department to set higher fees for premier camp sights as well as impose tougher fee penalties for cancelling reservations.

Under the new policy, the Commission establishes that all programs or services must have fees associated with them and that they all be self-sufficient and supported by revenues that cover costs.

Camping fees would start at $12 per night for a regular-primitive site; $25 for a regular-standard site; $30 for a regular-partial utility site; and $35 for a regular-utility site.

They would increase up to $15 a night for sites designated as “premier” sites during summers and other weekend or holidays, and standard sites could see fee increases up to $8 for certain weekends and holiday periods.

The changes also call for discounts of up to $10 in off-peak seasons of spring and fall, or up to $15 in the winter.

The length of stay regulation (10-day maximum currently) also would be changed, allowing for up to 14 consecutive days in the summer months, up to 30 consecutive days in spring and fall, and up to 60 consecutive days in the winter. That would apply to all camp sites, cabins, yurts or other vacation rentals, but actual stay limits could be set on a park-by-park basis.

The action allows the packaging or bundling of services, and fees may be attached to rates for services such as the use of a boat launch or allow a camper to store a recreational vehicle in an unused campsite. A premier campsite could include the opportunity to extend a stay beyond the normal limit under the changes.

Such pricing options, according to the staff summary, done in an equitable manner “provides an unlimited and no-cost way to differentiate and customize pricing in a world where one size does not fit all.”

Commission members were directly told by Parks staff that the changes they were making had long-lasting policy implications for parks users and signaled a major shift in longstanding Parks policy.

Fairleigh said he wanted to be sure the Commission understood the significance of its action.

“From my point of view, the most important part of this is not fees, it’s not the mechanics of cancellations … the most important thing is that you are saying certain activities will pay for themselves,” he said.

The pricing strategy is “typically to recover all costs of permit service up to fair market value with no subsidy,” Fairleigh read from an appendix on market strategy from the proposed policy document.

“Currently, we subsidize a lot of these activities,” he said. “… This is a message throughout the agency on how we’re going to make things work.”

Commissioner Joe Taller of Olympia commented that the new fee system is similar to the experience of the hotel industry in Ocean Shores, which can charge higher rates in summer months but may offer discounts to attract customers in the offseason.

“We have to be working the same thing in the offseason and charging more for the weekends, allowing the staff to analyze the market out there,” Taller said in agreeing to give Parks staff to set a fair market value for sites as well as yurts, vacation houses and cabins.

The danger is pricing that can be too high and discourage use, and Taller urged an annual review by staff of the impact of the fee changes. “I think it’s a balancing act,” Taller said.

Commissioner Russ Cahill of Olympia said he was concerned about RV owners and others who would monopolize premier sites for extended periods.

“People tie up the campsites, and many ways it’s unfair,” he said “… I’m hoping that when we do this there is some way of providing fairness for the other campers in giving them a chance to get the premier campsites.”

Commission Chairman Rodger Schmitt of Port Townsend said he, too, was concerned about the impact increases would have on those who could least afford it.

“The concern I have with any of the fee structure is to make sure we are not pricing out some of the less-advantaged folks,” he said. “We have to have a diversity of fees that are available.”

Commissioner Mark Brown of Lacey said he was stunned by the number of no-shows in reservations and the price paid in lost revenues. According to the executive summary of the changes, in 2011 there were 172,000 reservations make for Parks facilities, and almost 30,000 no-shows with only “nominal reservation change and cancellations fees” that could be collected.

Currently, the only penalty imposed for cancelling less than 8 days prior to arrival can only be a two-day maximum charge no matter how many nights beyond that are reserved. A no-show can be charged for a maximum of three nights.

Staff will propose by June a policy that will essentially “penalize people more for holding a reservation for a longer period and tying it up.” Penalties also will go up for changes.

Commissioner Steve Milner of Chelan expressed concern over the public backlash new fees and policies might have.

“The fees are going up because of lack of public support,” he said of past efforts to let residents volunteer to donate to state Parks when renewing licensing fees or the Discover Pass system of buying a pass to access state parks facilities. “That’s why we had to increase the camping fees. If we keep putting ourselves in the bad-guy position, we will be the whipping post.”

The Discover Pass, which is $10 for a day pass or $30 for a year, was projected to bring in $23.4 million but managed only $13.2 million in its first year. Also, because the Legislature has had to cut all agencies and even took money from Parks reserves, the department’s budget has dropped from $98 million in 2007-09 to about $21 million in the current biennium.

Commission members noted that campers or others paying overnight fees currently don’t need a Discover Pass to camp at a state park, and the executive summary calls for “harmonizing new fee policies with the Discover Pass.” It also calls for optional membership programs such as an annual camping pass or a preferred reservation designation at additional costs for the additional benefits.

Parks staff in May expect to present more specific campsite fee proposals and designate which sites will carry the different pricing options. All fees must be analyzed annually and brought before the Commission under the action.

Taller said it was important to remember that state Parks in the past has not operated solely as a business.

“We are now shifting, so some of the opportunities for people are going to be lost. My thinking is that it’s up to the Legislature to provide the opportunity for those people, not us,” Taller said.