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Fay, Fort Ward decision looms

Park district bracing for possible transfer of state parks.

In the office of Fay Bainbridge State Park ranger Bob Chalfant, the chilling of the state’s budget crises can already be felt.

During a chilly gray day, it’s barely warmer inside than outside because he’s been using the building’s heater sparingly this winter.

“I’m saving money any way I can these days,” said Chalfant, a 30-year agency veteran who manages Bainbridge’s Fay Bainbridge and Fort Ward parks.

Small cost cutters won’t be enough for the agency this year, however. The governor has already asked State Parks to trim $10 million from its budget for the next biennium; more cuts are looming.

Which is why as early as July, the island’s two state parks could be turned over to the Bainbridge Metropolitan Park and Recreation District – part of a $3.5 million cost-cutting package that could purge 13 parks from the state’s inventory.

A final decision won’t be made on the transfers until the state’s budget is formalized in April or early May. The State Parks and Recreation Commission is soliciting public comment on its budget planning and will hold meetings in Olympia in March and April (see box for information).

State Park officials were on Bainbridge Feb. 20 to present the proposal to the public, and park district board members said they want to take on the parks if it saves them from closing.

“Our goal, pure and simple, is to keep these open as parks for the people of Bainbridge as well as the enjoyment of anyone who wants to come use them,” park board member Kirk Robinson said.

Bainbridge park district staff are already scrambling to work through the deep complexities of taking on the parks.

The properties would add 154 acres and more than a mile of shoreline to the district’s holdings, but also a large expense. States Parks spends more than $500,000 each biennium operating the two island parks. Part of that expense is dedicated staffing. Chalfant, and his assistant M’Lee Barlow at Fort Ward, are full time rangers and they are assisted by park aids in the summer. Regional and headquarter support, utilities, maintenance and planning are also factored in.

Park District Executive Director Terry Lande said the district could operate the parks at a much lower expense by sliding Fay Bainbridge and Fort Ward into its existing maintenance program, which already tends to more than 20 properties. The district’s costs could be as low as $150,000 annually, but Lande said his staff needs much more information to find a solid number.

The good news is the district will have additional revenue this year after passing a levy lid-lift in 2008. The lift will bring about $300,000 to the district for operations, money that could make the state parks transfer viable.

“It we didn’t have (the lid-lift) we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Lande said.

But there still could be deal-breakers lurking in the fine print.

A major question is whether State Parks is willing to include its maintenance equipment in the package. Chalfant has a tractor, three trucks, a utility trailer and two mowers.

Lande said the park district is negotiating to keep that equipment on the island.

“If all they leave us is a hammer, we’re not going to have enough to run out and buy everything,” Lande said.

Big contingencies in the transfer agreement could also cause the park district to back off, including things like easement restrictions, contamination, or unknowns like buried fuel tanks.

Another question mark is a proposed sewer plant at Fay Bainbridge that would serve both the park and homes at nearby Point Monroe Drive and Lafayette Avenue. State funding for the project has been postponed until 2015, but Lande said the park district would be unable to shoulder the project if State Parks made it part of the transfer agreement.

The biggest challenge so far has been getting the information needed to create a plan for the transfer, Lande said. Park district staff have been working with Chalfant to sort out operational details, but State Parks hasn’t been able to provide the park district in-depth information.

“It’s difficult to prepare for it, when you can’t know what’s happening,” Lande said.

What’s clear is that state operations are much more involved than the local parks.

“A Washington State park, especially a camping park, is like a small city, it really is,” Chalfant said.

In the city of Fay Bainbridge, Chalfant could be called mayor and sheriff, but just as often he’s the garbage man and groundskeeper.

In the summer, when more than 1,000 visitors can course through the park in a day, Chalfant’s job shifts to people management. He’s checking car and campsite fees, explaining shellfish harvesting rules or scrubbing bathrooms.

Like all full-time state park rangers, Chalfant’s also a trained law enforcement officer and he deals with the same cross-section of crime you’d expect in any little city.

“Everyone recreates,” Chalfant said. “Even felons recreate.”

Chalfant has time to catch up on maintenance during winter months when visitors slow to a trickle. There are picnic tables to assemble, toilets to be replaced and trees to be trimmed. Chalfant does most of the maintenance himself.

“This time of year you’re as likely to see me in coveralls on a tractor as in uniform,” he said.

Park District Services Director Arlan Elms said the district would simplify those operations by spreading duties among its established staff, but the parks would still bring new challenges to the district.

Fay Bainbridge would be the first park district property to offer camping. Campers self-register at the park, and Elms said the campground could be worked into the district’s existing reservation system.

“I’m sure it’s something we can do well once we get rolling with it,” Elms said.

Despite the complexity and cost, Lande said the district is excited by the prospect of taking on two popular parks with extensive shoreline. That excitement is tempered by the knowledge that two longtime state park rangers will be forced off the island.

Chalfant said he and Barlow have enough seniority that their futures in the agency are secure. But their reassignments could land them anywhere in the state.

“As far as where we’ll go, we have no clue,” Chalfant said.

The State Parks and Recreation Commission meets March 5 and April 23 in Olympia. See www.wa.parks.gov for more information. Comments can be emailed to pao@parks.wa.gov

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