Opinion

Parks — the promise and the reality

JUST JACK

Several levels of reality have come home to Kitsap as a direct result of the recent economic downturn and the loss of revenues to various governmental coffers. One of the impacts receiving significant attention is the potential restriction of access to public parks or the loss of some parks.

Parks are one of the most misunderstood and highly political issues of our time, ranking just behind the magic of school funding. To hear candidates for office talk, parks are one of the “unalienable rights” endowed upon us by the Creator and something they will fight for and make sure we keep when they are elected. If that is the case, and every candidate seems to make the same promise, why is it that parks are always prominent on the chopping block when funds run short? Could it be there never was appropriate funding for operation and maintenance of parks in the first place?

Washington has 140 identified state parks occupying approximately 120,000 acres of some of the most pristine areas of the state. There is no doubt if you want beauty — go to a park. Operation and maintenance of those parks requires a fair “chunk of change.” The payroll for park employees is rather significant and certainly not covered by the user fees. The parks run at an annual deficit and rely on grants and volunteer efforts to stay up and running. Now, when dollars are down, the task is even more difficult. The end result is parks go under as scarce dollars are directed to applications considered more critical. The campaign promises are not really “broken,” they are just overcome by “unforeseen circumstances.”

If the state park funding problem is bad, that for the county is even worse. The county is able to find money to purchase land for parks, but has great difficulty finding the dollars to develop and then operate a park. Over the past 10 years, only one park I recall, Old Mill Park in Silverdale, was developed as a direct result of county funding. The simple fact is operation and maintenance of parks is not a responsibility assigned to county government. Sure, they give it a college try, but there is no reasonable way to pay the bills for all the required responsibilities and still have money left over for parks.

But we have parks and they are nice, you say. Have you ever considered why that is and who might be responsible? Have you noticed the number of parks that have Rotary, Kiwanis or Lions in the park name? If you visit one of the county parks and see a group of people working on the flower beds or trails, do they look like county employees or more like your next door neighbors? You are certainly aware that Clear Creek Trail, Illahee Preserve and Anderson Landing Preserve are the direct results of raw land being transformed by individual citizens working toward a common goal of parks and trails for the county. A few years ago, in Central Kitsap, 14,000 square feet of dirt near the Fairgrounds was transformed into a magnificent playground in one week. The effort was paid for by donations from people and businesses throughout the county and the sweat equity of a whole bunch of parents, grandparents and just plain people who wanted our county to be just a little bit better. When you go to parks like Anna Smith in Tracyton you get to enjoy the beauty and educational opportunities of the garden because a group of volunteer Master Gardeners are down there every Wednesday, March through November, volunteering their time, energy and, frequently, money to give us all one more thing to be proud of.

The bottom line of all of this is if you want parks you have to pay for them, one way or the other. The reality is that current tax levels cannot support the parks we want. Perhaps a better solution is to spend some time each week helping to make the parks what you want them to be. Ownership is a great incentive. The parks are yours, if you want them.

Jack Hamilton can be reached at gradiver@wavecable.com.

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