County parks striking out on own, financially

Scott Swanson

Linn County Parks and Recreation Department, for the first time in its history, is expected to be financially self-sufficient this year, even as it takes on the management of six U.S. Forest Service campgrounds along the South Santiam River.

“Over the years we’ve been working towards being, as we are now, what appears to be 100 percent self-supporting,” said Parks and Recreation Director Brian Carroll, who has been with the county since 1997. “One of the things the County Commissioners have done for us in order to accomplish that goal is they’ve more or less allowed us to make strategic investments in areas to allow the department to fulfill its mission of providing recreation for county residents and visitors.”

Financially, the department will stop receiving General Fund tax support in the 2011-12 fiscal year, Carroll said.

The parks received some $132,000 last year from the General Fund, which comes out of property taxes, and some economic development money.

“That can be exciting and a little unnerving,” he said.

Carroll said that when he arrived in Linn County, in 1997, the department received 65 to 70 percent of its revenue from the General Fund – a year in which it took in $242,814 in fees. Last year the total fees were $1,012,264 and thus far in this fiscal year, which ends June 30, fees total $1,062,878.

“So we’re cautiously optimistic for the future, that we will be able to continue to provide quality recreation services without doing it as a burden on property taxpayers in Linn County,” he said.

The upcoming parks budget totals approximately $1.9 million, which includes some $330,000 in recreational vehicle licensing fees and $67,000 from the Oregon State Marine Board in boating fees and taxes, along with some grants, of which Linn County parks have received some $4 million in the past 14 years. Carroll said that the rest will be self-generated.

He said some parks departments in other counties around the state are struggling with revenue reductions from their General Funds.

“That, more or less, has put them in the position in which it is very difficult to keep their facilities open, to provide recreation services,” resulting in facilities that are in decline or closed.

“Whereas, we’ve been able to, I believe, maintain a pretty high standard of facilities and even open more facilities. We’re one of the few departments in the state that have actually expanded,” he said.

Carroll said the full-time staff in his department hasn’t changed since the 1980s – 11 people.

“We had quite a few less facilities then,” he said, noting that a campground has been added at Waterloo, boat ramps have been built, Sunnyside and John Neal expanded, and the Clear Lake, River Bend and U.S. Forest Service facilities have been added.

The county and the Forest Service accepted the county’s bid last winter for the concessions contract to manage Fern View, House Rock, Longbow, Lost Prairie, Trout Creek and Yukwah campgrounds, along the South Santiam in the eastern portion of the county. Carroll said the move made a lot of sense because the county already operates River Bend Campground and Clear Lake Resort, which flank the string of Willamette National Forest campgrounds.

“Part of the reason we got involved was that it seemed like a natural fit for us to be involved when they came open,” he said, adding that the county already has a “good” working relationship with the Forest Service.

“Even though they are National Forest campgrounds, they are still recreation facilities available to local Linn County residents,” he said. “We thought we could make improvements that would benefit us, as well as the facilities that are in that area. Our goal is to promote those facilities and the use of them from a recreational standpoint as well as help economically in the area – to promote tourism.”

The National Forest campgrounds have not had a lot of upgrades in recent years, but Carroll said the county will leave them alone, for the most part, this summer as it figures out how to best manage them in sync with its own facilities. The one exception has been Longbow, where flood damage repair work has been done.

“People are probably not going to see a lot of changes this year,” he said. “Our goal is to see how best to make them fit with our operations. We want to get through the season and see what we find up there. We’ll propose improvements down the road.”

Management of the six campgrounds will largely fall to Scott Puskar, ranger at River Bend, and a team of seasonal employees who will provide day-to-day maintenance.

New this year is the abilitiy to make on-line reservations for House Rock and Trout Creek campgrounds.

To learn more about campground reservations, campsite availability, or to make a reservation, visitors can access National Recreation Reservation System through http://www.recreation.gov or call toll free (877) 444-6777.

Overnight camping fees for individual campsites are $15 per night.

The 50 percent discount for the Interagency Access Pass, Senior Pass, and Golden Access/Golden Age Pass will be honored at all single campsites within the USFS campgrounds.

Extra vehicle fees will be $5, same as last year.

Carroll said that, unlike the county’s campgrounds, reservations for the Forest Service sites must be made through NRRS, while other questions can be directed to the county office at (541) 967-3917.

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