MIKE BRAUN Parking fee plan -- good or bad?

Recently the Ohio Department of Natural Resources made a proposal that was calculated to help keep the state park system from running out of money.
The plan, if approved, would take effect in May and would allow the 74 state parks in Ohio to collect $5 for a daily parking pass or $25 for an annual pass good for unlimited parking from state residents.
Depending on your outlook, this is a good thing or a bad idea.
For those who frequent Ohio's state parks on a regular basis, having to pay for what was once free is sure to rankle some.
On the other hand, the $25 annual Parks Pride Pass is a fairly small fee to pay to help the parks keep their areas up to snuff.
Part of the proposal
Other aspects of the parking fee proposal include making the passes good for one year from date of purchase, making them $1 more expensive per day or $5 per year for out-of-state visitors, and offering a $4 daily and $20 annual discount for Golden Buckeye card holders.
The proposal explains that the funds collected via the pass will mainly be returned to the park where they were collected and the rest will go to a general fund for state park operations and maintenance.
ODNR officials explained that the parking fee was needed because the past method of funding for the parks -- general revenue funds and user fees generated from camping, boat dock rentals and concessionaire contracts -- were not enough to keep Ohio's parks at the level residents were accustomed to.
In an attempt to keep parks running with fewer funds, state officials said many things have been done in the past five years include staff reductions. According to an ODNR press release, for example, "Ohio State Parks employed 607 full-time staff members in 2000, but cut that number to 490 employees in 2004. Only 42 of the system's 74 parks now have on-site managers."
Not happy
Some area residents have made their feelings known on the parking fee idea.
"My initial thoughts on the issue are similar to those often made concerning public libraries; that is, where possible, we should provide free and equal basic access for all people to take in these wonderfully scenic natural resources that we call state parks," said Jack Mullen of Warren. Mullen is an avid local outdoorsman and conservationist.
"Many people enjoy just taking a moment out of their hectic day to eat lunch or take a brief walk in these beautiful and serene settings. And, through the years, haven't we all known some young family and/or a family on low income who have packed all the children in the car for a "day at the beach" at Mosquito Lake (or some other state park).
"It seems to me that imposing a fee would unfairly deter a lot of people from using the state parks. With frequent revelations of government waste, mismanagement, lack of purchasing controls and wasteful spending -- it would seem that government needs to continue to eliminate waste before imposing fees, especially these fees, on Ohioans. Once this has been accomplished, then the next step might be to take another look at fees for boat docking, playing golf at state park courses, lodge fees, etc. -- there never seems to be a shortage of people willing to choose to pay for these services."
Denny Molloy, field director for Whitetails Unlimited, a former Ohio Division of Wildlife officer and co-host of Saturday mornings "Outdoor Icon" radio show on Radio 57 WKBN, also did not see a reason for the fee.
"This plan is ridiculous -- the park officers will become baby-sitters -- and every person that gets dinged for this violation will become anti-ODNR."
Furthermore, Molloy said, "Didn't we already pay for those ramps and parking areas with our tax dollars -- now we need to pay to see them -- what about the 100 hunters who draw a duck blind on Mosquito? I think the county commissioners should fight this as to prevent decreased tourism to parks in their counties."
Scott Hanselman, who runs the Books and Hooks fly-fishing shop on Maple Street in Girard, said: "... as long as they use the money for good purposes, then I don't have a problem with it. They will get the money out of us somehow. I just feel sorry for the people that don't have the money to pay to go to the parks for picnics."
In response, Jane Beathard, a spokesman for the ODNR, said these concerns were ones the department was familiar with.
"First of all, fishing and hunting license revenues -- by Ohio law -- must be used to acquire additional hunting and fishing lands and improve wildlife habitat. They cannot be used for state park maintenance -- that's the law.
"Boat license sales revenues and gas tax revenues go to improve the state's public boating facilities -- to build launch ramps, parking lots at launch sites and docking facilities. They also cannot be used for state park maintenance -- except in the area of dredging. Some waterways safety fund money goes to dredge the canal feeder lakes such as Indian Lake, Grand Lake St. Marys, Lake Loramie, Buckeye Lake, etc.
"While we understand that many people feel they are 'paying twice' to fish, boat, etc., in effect they already pay to park at many public facilities like our state parks. A good comparison is a publicly owned stadium or sports facility such as Browns Stadium, Paul Brown Stadium or Ohio Stadium. You still have to pay to park there [and pay to get in for that matter]. Using tax money to purchase or construct the facility still leaves bills for routine maintenance and upkeep. That's why you pay to park. And that's why we want to institute a parking pass -- to help with that routine upkeep that our fees and general revenue fund don't cover."
The administration of this fee will be different at each park, as well, according to state officials. At more popular sites, there will be passes for designated areas available for motorists. Other, less crowded areas will go by the honor system, envelopes and drop boxes.
Those walking or bicycling into parks will not need the passes, officials said.
Air your opinion
Whatever your feelings about this proposal, there will be a chance to air your opinion. A public hearing will be held at 1 p.m. Feb. 12 at the Ohio Historical Center, Interstate 71 and 17th Ave., in Columbus.
There's no doubt that Ohio's state parks are popular. According to state officials, Ohio State Parks are the third most-visited state park system in the country behind California and New York.
Any time you start talking about fees for something that heretofore had been free, you irk people. This is especially true with the imposition of fees in Ohio over the past few years for a whole range of things that had once been feeless.
There's no doubt that things get more expensive as time goes on. But one of the most enduring aspects about life, especially in Ohio, was that even when other forms of entertainment got to be pricey, you could always count on jumping into the car and motoring to the park for a couple hours of serenity. The fee makes that trip a little less enjoyable.

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