ANYTIME government starts charging for something that's currently "free," someone is bound to be unhappy.
We expect an adverse public reaction to the proposed $5 entrance fee proposed for Ohio's 74 state parks, although the action may be necessary to preserve what is now one of this nation's premier state park systems, visited by some 30 million people annually.
The fee, which would be imposed on each motor vehicle entering a state park facility, would pay for maintenance in the face of cutbacks stemming from a projected $5 billion state budget deficit over the next two years. This year, the Department of Natural Resources, which runs the parks, is facing an actual reduction in its $67 million annual budget.
What officials are trying to avoid are shabbier parks where the grass is cut less often, maintenance of buildings and roads is curtailed, and there are fewer staff to help park users.
The fee plan is an administrative move by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. It must be approved by the General Assembly's joint agency rule review committee, although the full legislature could intervene. Some lawmakers already are talking about other options, such as dedicating a percentage of sales tax revenue for parks.
Sam Speck, DNR director, portrays the fee as necessary both to "preserve the experience" of visiting state parks for Ohioans and to keep park facilities in good shape so as to protect the state's investment. He says it is a last resort in responding to the financial challenges of previous budget cuts, inflation, and added personnel costs.
The park system, Mr. Speck notes, already has increased fees for camping and boat docking and has cut its staff by nearly one quarter since 2000 while slimming down management. Of the 74 parks, only 42 have managers, and 22 parks have only part-time workers. At the same time, the system has been hurt by the loss of the Civilian Conservation Corps, abolished by the legislature, which formerly helped out with park tasks.
Ohio is one of only five states that don't charge for day use of their state parks. Among them are neighboring Kentucky and Pennsylvania, although budget cuts recently forced Pennsylvania to reduce services and partially close some facilities.
Ohioans should be aware that the park fee is likely to be only one of many new fees or fee increases they can expect from various agencies as the legislature attempts to deal with what would be the largest budget deficit in state history.
Still, one of the park system's best features has been the lack of an admission fee. While $5 doesn't seem like a lot of money to most people, a fee would only serve to exclude at least some of those in the lowest income brackets.
Because the fee would apply to each vehicle entering a park, the plan is more equitable than if the fee were levied on each individual, and it won't apply to people who enter by foot, on bikes, or in boats. DNR officials also have made provisions for cheaper rates for seniors ($4 a day) and annual passes for $20 for seniors and $25 for others.
We regret the need for a fee increase, even though it appears this one is justified. But it cannot be forgotten that a fee is still a tax increase by another name.