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Pressure’s off for state park transfer

The state’s offer to transfer Fay Bainbridge and Fort Ward state parks to the Bainbridge Metropolitan Park and Recreation District may still be on the table.

But gone is the urgency that had been driving the move this spring.

Through a new car-registration fee collection system and several budget allocations, the state Legislature has secured enough funding to keep all state parks open for the next biennium.

The State Parks and Recreation Commission had been in talks with the Bainbridge park district to transfer Fay Bainbridge and Fort Ward as early as July, to forestall their closure.

Rep. Christine Rolfes of Bainbridge said the Legislature’s budget fix isn’t permanent, but it has bought State Parks time.

“The system is on life support,” Rolfes said. “What we have now is some breathing room.”

Several Bainbridge park board members said they are breathing easier after learning that the island’s two state parks won’t be closing imminently if the park district decides not to take them.

With the park district preparing to take on a glut of open space transfers from the city, and new parkland purchases from lid-lift money on the horizon, park board member Kirk Robinson said the board needs to step back and examine its priorities. With the pressure off on a state park transfers, Robinson said the board will have more time for that discussion.

“There doesn’t seem to be a deadline anymore,” park board member Kirk Robinson said.

Board member Dave Shorrett was already resistant to the transfer because he felt the parks carried too much baggage, especially Fay Bainbridge, where a planned sewer project remains unfinished. With State Parks no longer in crisis, Shorrett said it doesn’t make sense to place the burden of operating the parks on local taxpayers.

“It would seem to me quite unreasonable for us to volunteer to take these parks,” he said.

The Legislature’s rescue of state parks began with the passage of a bill that will require state residents to mark a box if they don’t want to make a $5 donation to parks when they register vehicles. In the past, residents have had the option of checking a box to make a donation.

The new “opt out” language is expected to bring in $28 million to support park operations. The Legislature also made hefty allocations from several recreation program accounts.

Attached to the allocations, the Legislature stipulated that the State Parks and Recreation Commission cannot close any parks in the 2009-2011 biennium unless the “opt out” fee nets less money than expected.

But the Legislature also instructed the commission to “actively pursue transferring ownership of state parks to local governments, tribes or other entities that have expressed an interest in operating the park.”

Fay Bainbridge, Fort Ward and 11 other state parks have been on a list for possible transfer since well before the state budget crisis. During Centennial 2013 planning, those 13 parks were identified as being potentially out of sync with the agency’s vision. But the list was never fully reviewed. When State Parks was asked to identify $10 million in cuts late last year, the list was used as a starting point for transferring or closing parks. As the state’s budget woes deepened, the agency identified nearly 30 more parks to be mothballed.

With funding now in place to keep parks open, State Parks and Recreation Commission member Joan Thomas said the commission will likely revisit the list and determine which parks to pursue transferring. That review may come at the commission’s June 22 meeting.

Out of all the local agencies that State Parks had approached about potential transfers, Thomas said the Bainbridge park district was perhaps the most eager and able to take over property.

While State Parks awaited final budget numbers, park district staff had been trying to work out the details of operating the parks and any complicating factors.

Though transfer is no longer urgent, Lande said he’s glad his staff had taken time to prepare.

“We’re in a position to wait, see and respond,” Lande said.

Community Events, April 2014

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