Michael McCormic, Jr.
It has been four years since former county commissioners Tom Mielke and David Madore spearheaded a plan to remove the parking fees from Clark County regional parks. Now, with a new board of commissioners, the old parking fees are back, much to the chagrin of many regular park users.
In late 2012, Madore made good on a campaign promise to make local parks available for all county residents. This past April, however, the parks once again began charging inbound vehicles daily parking fees — $2 for motorcycles, $3 for cars, or $8 for busses or RVs. These fees, which generate approximately $325,000 per year for the county general fund, make up 0.1 percent of the county’s $311 million general budget revenue and less than 3 percent of the $12.6 million dedicated specifically to the regional parks.
The nominal revenue expected from the parking fees, at one tenth of a percent, is clearly not an absolute necessity to the county budget. In fact, the parks have been maintained and staffed throughout the past four years in the absence of these charges. This is because the parks are not funded directly from the revenue generated by their parking fees, but rather receive funding through the county general fund.
Many speculate that the parking fees are not so much intended to be a source of revenue as they are a form of social control. While the proposition to reinstate the fees does briefly mention them serving as a source of sustainable funding, the majority is dedicated to describing the regulatory effects of reinstating the parking fees.
According to the proposition, the fees would “encourage carpooling or other means of entry and reduce impact on parking areas; limit the entry of those who would otherwise vandalize or misuse a park, or be disruptive to other park users; assist the shelter reservation program by reducing the number of vehicles entering park and negatively impacting the scheduled and reserved use of the park; and reduce the incidents of parking lots being used by those sleeping in vehicles, dealing drugs, prostitution, or other malicious activity within the parks.”
As can be expected, many members of the community are strongly against the reinstatement of these fees because the parks are already funded through tax dollars. Since taking effect on April 3rd of this year, families venturing to our regional parks have been surprised by the return of the parking fees.
On park user, Katie, says she was caught off guard by the parking fees. As a resident whose income is not always predictable, she claims that the parking fees will affect her ability to go to the park regularly. “I think it will kind of limit us because we’re based on clientele for income,” she explains. “When it comes to the point when we have low clientele, it would make us hesitant to go the park.”
Heather, another park user who is upset with the new parking fees, says, “I live really close and I enjoy coming here to run and walk the trails, but if I can’t come in now and park, I’ll probably just run around my home.”
Some have suggested that in the early days of the park fees’ reinstatement, county officials failed to indicate clearly that passes were required. Such is the case of Jennifer Heine-Withee, a Zumba dance instructor and regular user of Klineline Park, who received a $40 ticket because she was not aware she was required to pay for parking.
“About half of the cars currently in the parking lot also had tickets on them,” Heine-Withee explains, also noting that the lot was not adequately marked to indicate that there was a parking charge. “We looked around for the sign and found one sign at the entrance that was around 11″x17,” the coloring was light blue and green and it had a small red strip at the bottom stating the new fee. There was nobody working the booth, there wasn’t a second sign at the walking entrance to the park and no other means of letting the public know about the new fee.”
Heine-Withee claims that the lack of advertisement was an intentional attempt to write more parking tickets. “It is my opinion that the county implemented this in a way as to catch as many people off guard as possible in order to collect more money from them,” she says.
For others, the frustration of the parking fees lies not in their reinstatement, but in where the money is going. The county budget directs money from the parking fees into the county general fund, meaning that the money generated from the parking fees may or may not go towards park maintenance and improvement. Because of this, those who pay for parking at our regional parks are getting the same service for a higher price, which does not sit well with many local residents.
Jen, a local mother and regular park user says, “It’s not fair we have to pay twice if we’re already paying for taxes and then we’re also paying for what we thought was the park and it’s not really for the park.”
Ostensibly, the parking fees are intended to curb vandalism, drug use, and other illegal activities in the park. The counterclaim by those who oppose the fees states that these activities rarely go on in broad daylight, and park attendants would have more time to dedicate to patrolling the park if they were not busy collecting payment from incoming vehicles.
By far, the greatest outcry due to these fees echoes from those who believe that they cause a disadvantage for low income families. According to Larry White, a Washougal Planning Commissioner, these fees prevent park use by “the people who need it most.” Because people on a low income budget often do not have the money to recreate, the movie theater, bowling, or theme parks are not much of an option.
And while $3 seems a small price to those using the park, White claims that, “The people in the park can afford to pay the money. The people not in the park cannot afford to pay that money.”
County residents do not want the vandalism and illegal activity in the park, and rightfully so, but daytime parking fees will do nothing to curb illegal nighttime activity when most of these actions occur. Even if the fees did reduce the criminal behavior in the park, many are left wondering if driving out vandals and drug users is worth the cost of also turning away the thousands of families who have few other means of entertainment.