Should state parks be funded with user fees or tax dollars?
State funding for the agency that oversees parks fell by $4.5 million over the last 12 years, even as expenses kept growing. To make ends meet, the Department of Conservation and Recreation has had to capitalize on its assets, collecting more and more revenue from those who use the parks or lease space in them.
Two recent examples illustrate the trend. DCR recently began moving ahead with plans to start charging for parking along roadways it owns in Revere and Cambridge. Most of the new parking meters were installed along Revere Beach Parkway, which abuts the nation’s oldest public beach.
The agency also hiked nightly camping fees for out-of-state visitors to the state’s parks. The camping fee for out-of-state visitors to the state’s premier parks jumped temporarily from $35 to $75 last year and was made permanent this year.
Both moves make political and practical sense. Charging for parking is a way of making users share in the upkeep of beaches and parks. Charging out-of-state residents far more than in-state residents for campsites is a way of pushing the cost of upkeep on to those who don’t vote here and whose complaints are likely to fall on deaf ears.
A special commission is now examining DCR and looking for ways to improve the operation of the agency, including the possibility of transferring some of its assets to other agencies or municipalities. The commission has hired the Donahue Institute at UMass Amherst to do a scrub of the agency.
Doug Pizzi, the executive director of Massachusetts Conservation Voters, says DCR is only doing what it has to do to survive. “DCR is under extreme pressure to raise money any way it can without raising taxes,” he said.
Pizzi and Chuck Anastas, the chair of Massachusetts Conservation Voters, recently urged the commission to focus less on cannibalizing DCR’s assets and more on its budget and the source of its funding.
“Specifically, do we want a park system that relies on broad-based general appropriation tax dollars to sustain it or regressive user fees that hinder the ability of those who most need our parks to use them freely?” they asked. “Recent trends to increase the percentage of the budget paid for in user fees and other non-tax income are as wrong-headed as they are fiscally imprudent.”
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