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Widening cost-revenue gap at parks prompts fee hike talk

Washington County officials are considering some changes in park user fees to accommodate a growing number of visitors and additional operations costs.

County parks, including the popular Lake Elmo Park Reserve and Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park, attract an estimated 1.5 million visitors per year, a 50 percent jump from 2007, according to figures provided by county officials.

Visitors entering the parks are required to obtain parking permits, which are also valid at Anoka and Carver county parks, for $25 annually or $5 daily.

Washington County Parks Director John Elholm said about 15,000 daily permits are obtained during peak times of the year, with Lake Elmo garnering about 30,000 a year.

"Fees can be an effective way to raise revenue," he said, but added they're also a less stable way to pay for operations when much of the activity is dependent on weather, conditions of the parks and seasonal amenities.

About $1 million in revenues is gained by the parks system, while the county spends $2.6 million on operations and maintenance.

In addition to 15 full-time staff members managing the parks, the department also utilizes Sentencing to Service workers for a number of maintenance tasks, as well as seasonal crews and community partnerships.

"We're maximizing all the community resources that we can to maintain the parks," Public Works Director Don Theisen said, adding that the challenge is "parks are a very seasonal thing; how do you staff up for that peak?"

Another challenge, mainly visible at the Lake Elmo Park Reserve, is keeping restroom facilities clean during busy times of the year that attract thousands of visitors from all over the metro.

County staff members are studying various options to bridge the gap between expenses and revenues. One suggestion is to bring in larger concessions run by outside vendors.

But the parks don't typically serve as festival-types of places, where goers expect an array of carnival foods.

"We don't necessarily have a draw every single day with music," County Administrator Molly O'Rourke said as an example.

County commissioners were reluctant to give staff direction to raise park fees right off the bat at a July 23 workshop meeting. However, they suggested studying other options like partnerships with statewide health initiatives to encourage physical activity.

"We want to be somewhat careful in raising fees to the extent that it might discourage people from using the parks," Dist. 1 Commissioner Fran Miron said.

In Washington County, 41 percent of park operations is funded through a tax levy, while 47 percent is funded through fees. The rest is paid for by state dollars.

Anoka County, on the other hand, gets about 55 percent levied, approximately 30 percent through fees and the rest from the state.

"Too much of an increase can bring us out of line with our neighboring counties," Elholm said.

Dist. 4 Commissioner Autumn Lehrke, who represents the southern part of the county including Cottage Grove, wasn't so keen on raising fees either and having residents all across the county pay to solve problems in the certain areas or the congested Lake Elmo Park Reserve, which sees a lot more users.

"I would hate for my Cottage Grove residents to stop using the Cottage Grove Ravine because they can't afford the fees," she said.

Commissioners did not take action at the meeting and will revisit the discussion after staff conducts a detailed analysis of the needs.

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.