Karen Spencer, coordinator of the Baker County Parks Department, had ample reason to recently describe the department’s financial situation as “not sustainable.”
One of its consistent sources of revenue — camping and other fees from the Hewitt and Holcomb parks on Brownlee Reservoir near Richland — has dropped significantly the past few years.
Meanwhile, occasional sources of money, including log sales from county-owned property and the outright sales of some parcels, have gone away or likely will soon as county officials look to sell the few remaining parcels to temporarily plug the budget gap.
Expenses, on the other hand, have been rising, albeit relatively slowly.
A simple solution doesn’t seem to be available.
Raising rates at the two parks certainly isn’t feasible. Officials say the main reason for declining revenue is a combination of low water in the reservoir and advisories regarding toxic algae in Brownlee, both of which have discouraged anglers and boaters. Charging people more to use parks they’re already shunning likely would make the situation worse.
A possible option that Spencer mentioned is asking voters to create a special district that would boost property taxes to raise money for the parks department. Similar districts already exist to pay for, among other things, libraries and control of noxious weeds and, in part of the county, mosquitoes.
That’s a reasonable idea. But convincing voters to increase their property taxes probably would be difficult.
A more promising prospect is asking Idaho Power Company to either increase its financial support for the parks — the company already contributes about $30,000 annually — or even to take over operation (but not ownership) of the parks.
Idaho Power, after all, operates Brownlee Dam. And although the company has no choice but to lower the reservoir level during spring for flood control (as dictated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), it does determine water levels at other times based on its power production needs. It’s reasonable for the county to ask the company for help when those needs create conditions that drive customers away.
Spencer, along with Bill Harvey, chairman of the Baker County Board of Commissioners, and Ed Elms, chairman of the county’s parks advisory board, all said the ultimate goal is to keep the parks open, and in county ownership.
That should indeed be the county’s objective.
But if options such as increased financial aid from Idaho Power don’t materialize, county officials shouldn’t shy away from taking the matter to voters.
— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor