Ohio to Charge to 'Park at the Park'
By Stateline Staff
For the first time in Ohio history, visitors to state parks will soon have to pay a fee to bring their cars and trucks.
The $5-a-day parking passes, which are projected to generate $3 million a year, are another indicator of Buckeye state budget problems. Forty four other states already charge admission or parking fees at some or all of their parks.
"We pride ourselves on our parks being free," said Republican Bill Harris, President of the Ohio Senate. But Harris adds: "We're facing unusual circumstances."
Those circumstances include an Ohio economy that has yet to shake itself out of the doldrums, despite signs of a national economic rebound.
Sam Speck, Director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said fees are necessary because his Division of Parks is operating on less money now than it had seven years ago. And that doesn't take inflation into account. Skyrocketing Medicaid costs are devouring a growing share of the state budget, leaving little extra cash for what is seen as a non-essential service such as state parks.
Over the last five years, Ohio's Division of Parks has reduced staff by 14 percent, slashed equipment purchases by 36 percent, and regionalized park rangers so that at 22 parks, there are no full-time staffers on site. Park maintenance has been cut so much already that the parks are deteriorating, and the extra revenue from parking fees will stop the situation from getting worse, Speck said.
The parking fees are built into Republican Gov. Bob Taft's proposed two-year $51.4 billion state budget. The legislature, dominated by Taft's fellow Republicans, has declined to block the pending parking fee plan, although lawmakers could later wipe out the need for the fees by allocating more money from the General Revenue Fund than Taft has proposed.
"Pipe safes" will soon be installed at park entrances, in anticipation of the May 1 start-up of the parking fee system. Park goers will be asked to put five dollars in an envelope with their license plate number written on it and put the envelope into a slit in the pipe. Park rangers won't be constantly watching over who pays and who doesn't. "It's strictly the honor system," said Jane Beathard, spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Department. "We don't want to siphon away park rangers from public safety and patrols to enforce the parking fees."
Even though park officials promise lax enforcement, a $25 yearly parking pass, and discounts for senior citizens and park visitors who stay in campgrounds or lodges, the fee plan has sparked a firestorm of protest.
"Parks are the last thing in Ohio that are free," and they should stay that way, said Larry Mitchell, who heads the League of Ohio Sportsmen, an organization that claims a membership of 200,000.
"State parks are public land, and everyone should have equal access," said Ellen Hawkey, speaking for the Ohio Sierra Club.
State Sen Tim Grendell (R) complained that the parking fees will shut low-income families out of the state parks. "Hard working Ohioans" have already paid for the parks with their tax money and shouldn't have to pay extra when they park their vehicles there, he said
But Jack Shaner, a lobbyist for the Ohio Environmental Council, a coalition of more than a hundred private environmental groups, disagrees. He notes that state universities and the state fairgrounds were built with taxpayer money.
"The people own those properties - lock, stock, and barrel - but you can't just waltz into a college class for free. You have to pay tuition. And you can't waltz into the state fair for free. You have to pay admission," Shaner said.
Ohio's move is leading at least one of the five remaining states without admission or parking fees to consider the idea. Iowa park officials have already asked Ohio officials how they plan to implement the plan, said Ohio Parks Division program manager John Hunter.