County Parks Face Five-Year Budget Crunch

An increase to the county parks budget has been approved to get the department through the current fiscal year, but more definitive actions will be considered during an upcoming budget process.

Though closure and sale of parks — including the popular A.W. Way County Park in Petrolia — is mentioned in a written staff report as a budget-balancing option, county supervisors are reluctant to pursue it.

The struggle to maintain operation of county parks facilities was described to the Board of Supervisors at its March 22 meeting. “We are facing a wall right now with revenues not expected to meet expenditures for the next fiscal year and we’re looking at what we need to do to rectify that issue,” said county Director of Public Works Tom Mattson.

A major aspect of the deficit is insurance costs that rose from about $6,000 in the 2013 to 2014 fiscal year to $91,842 in the current fiscal year due to a 2013 fatality involving a county parks employee who was driving a county vehicle.

With the hiked insurance rate expected to continue for the next five years, a deficit will persist and Mattson said about half of it can be covered by raising overnight camping fees, implementing new day use fees at some parks and increasing reservation costs at Pamplin Grove, a western annex of Van Duzen County Park.

Mattson said a variety of options for balancing the parks budget would be up for consideration as the county formulates the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

They could include measures like not filling staff positions if they become vacant and not hiring summer help, Mattson said.

“That will have a significant effect on what the public sees in the parks,” he continued. “We do need to make some hard choices because it will be several years that we’ll have to address this cost as well as some of the collapsing infrastructure in the parks.”

For now, supervisors approved increasing the parks budget by about $77,000, with the money coming from parks trust fund transfers and what a staff report describes as “a more aggressive revenue estimate” than previously advanced.

The staff report’s mention of “selling or relinquishing” some county parks has triggered a sense of alarm. But supervisors acknowledged the value of county parks and discouraged closing them.

Supervisor Estelle Fennell suggested opening the floor for residents to advance their ideas on what should be done through a forum on the county’s website.

Supervisor Rex Bohn said the parks situation and particularly the prospect of closing A.W. Way County Park led to his fielding 109 phone calls, with 33 of them from out-of-county residents who use the park.

Bohn said the potential for closing the park has been “overstated” but “there are some serious deficiencies that we have to face.”

The community value of county parks has to be weighed, he continued, adding that the A.W. Way facility is “a pretty good-sized economic engine for the Mattole Valley” and is a base for the area’s only road repair employee.

Bohn reported that park users who called him said they’d agree to overnight camping fee increases, as “we’ve got the cheapest rates in the north state.”

Board Chair Mark Lovelace emphasized that a variety of budget-balancing options will be on the table and decisions on them will be discussed in the near future.

When Mattson reiterated that the insurance cost hike will persist over the next five years, Lovelace said the means of addressing it should be similarly temporary.

“In my way of thinking, when we start looking at a five-year problem, we shouldn’t be looking at permanent and irreversible changes such as off-loading parks properties,” said Lovelace.

Supervisors unanimously supported Fennell’s motion to approve supplementing the parks budget and to use the county’s website to invite residents’ feedback on how to balance it.