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Driving up prices: County proposes Increase in vehicle permit fees at parks

Visitors to Washington County parks should expect to pay more next year for vehicle permits.

The permits are required for cars to enter some county parks, including Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park and Lake Elmo Park Reserve.

At their Sept. 6 budget workshop, county commissioners considered a request from public works director Don Theisen to increase the annual pass from $25 to $30 and the daily pass from $5 to $7.

The hike was part of the funding requests submitted by Theisen for his proposed 2017 department budget.

"It would fund staffing to address our challenges," he said.

County parks received an estimated 1.7 million visitors last year. While that's a desirable challenge, there's a price that must be paid, Theisen said.

"We're no longer just a summer operation," he said, noting that the trail system attracts cross-country skiers in winter and hikers in the fall.

The $230,000 estimated revenue from the increase would pay for three additional full-time positions, including a maintenance supervisor, maintenance worker and a support staff member to work in the park offices. The Park's maintenance department currently has seven full-time staff who care for seven regional parks and two regional bike trails, with assistance from part-time seasonal workers.

That's a lot of ground to cover, Theisen said, considering that Washington County has the lowest proportion of full-time park maintenance employees in the metro region.

"The alternative is that you raise property taxes," he said after the workshop.

The board would have to approve the hike when they vote on their final budget in December.

Commissioner Karla Bigham said the hike was reasonable. The daily vehicle permit fee was last raised in 2003. The annual permit fee was last raised in 2005.

"I think the increase in the park fees are modest and justified," she said. "With over 1.7 million visitors, use is growing. I think it makes it even more justified."

Theisen said they are working with the Department of Community Services on a pilot program that would provide an annual vehicle pass to about 500 families who qualify for financial assistance.

The annual vehicle passes are valid for one year from the date of purchase, so those who wanted to beat the $5 increase can still do so.

Vehicle permits can be purchased at park offices including Big Marine and Lake Elmo Park Reserves, St Croix Bluffs Regional Park, Public Works, Washington County License Centers and Service Centers. Honor boxes are available at each park entrance.

The County Board will set a preliminary levy Sept. 13. The budget may continue to be adjusted until December, when it is adopted. However, the levy can only be decreased, not increased, after it is set.

The public is invited to any budget discussions throughout the fall and especially to the 6 p.m. public hearing on the budget Dec. 6.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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