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Rising insurance costs threaten public access to county parks

An outpouring of support for Humboldt's County's parks seems likely to stave off any of the drastic changes to the system proposed as the department faces major budget shortfalls for the next several years.

Community concern reached a peak late last month, when Public Works Director Tom Mattson presented a report to the board of supervisors outlining the financial woes of county Parks and Trails (a division of Public Works). Mattson was requesting to transfer $18,000 from parks-held trusts into the department's budget to cover the remainder of the fiscal year, which the supervisors granted.

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But his report outlined growing concerns over the parks' ability to stay solvent in the future, and identified potential solutions: including the establishment of fees at currently free county parks, the removal of services and even the sale of several parks.

The parks department's biggest challenge comes from a massive increase in insurance costs, the result of a crash that killed a man in February 2013, when an on-duty parks employee struck cyclist John Mello on U.S. Highway 101. The county eventually settled a claim with Mello's family for $1.6 million.

As a result, the county's insurance premiums spiked, and the county allocated those costs to the agency responsible: the parks department. The department's insurance bill went up nearly 15 fold, from $6,000 for the 2013-2014 fiscal year to $92,000 for the current fiscal year. Including this year's $50,000 increase, that comes to $250,000 over five years before the insurance costs may go back down. The county already mandates driver safety training for employees, Mattson said, and there's little it can do to mitigate the insurance costs. "Things like this really drive home the safety efforts that everyone has to make in all our divisions," Mattson said in a recent interview.

"Unfortunately the parks [department] has always been operated on a shoestring," he said, adding that the county has been deferring maintenance at parks for years. The massive insurance increase was enough to send his department scrambling for cost-saving and revenue-generating measures, he said, but it was only the "tip of the iceberg" of funding shortfalls.

Mattson's supplemental budget will get the department through the June 30 end of the fiscal year, but the Parks Department's trust funds are all but empty.

So Mattson started looking for solutions. The parks department has already saved money by turning to volunteers and inmates enrolled in the Sheriff's Work Alternative Program to reduce maintenance costs, discontinued operating the Luffenholtz beach access and turning to in-house fire ring construction.

Mattson proposed several measures for the upcoming fiscal year, including discontinuing the temporary dam that creates a swimming hole at Freshwater Park, charging day-use fees at Mad River and Clam beaches, and selling some of the county's properties, including the beloved A.W. Way campground in Petrolia.

The county doesn't have a quick way to tally attendance at those parks, Mattson said, but the identification of those as cost saving measures doesn't mean they aren't popular. It's just that the operation of those particular parks is expensive; the permitting of the dam, the cost of having a ranger, the help needed to collect fees, they all add up. In fact, only two of the county's 15 parks generate enough revenue to cover their upkeep.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the proposed measures were met unfavorably.

A prompt for comments related to the parks budget issue on the county's online "Open Humboldt" board got more than 300 responses, a big turnout for the comment space.

Of those respondents, 88 percent said they considered county parks "extremely important." More than 90 percent said providing general funds for the county parks was an "extremely important" or "very important" use of the money, and expressed a desire to keep the parks free or affordable. Seventy-seven percent said not to consider day-use fees at parks that don't currently charge for that use.

Humboldt Surfrider led a campaign encouraging people to weigh in on the issue, and Humboldt Chapter Chair Delia Bense-Kang wrote a letter to the board of supervisors opposing the sale of public properties and the increase or installation of day-use fees.

"Imposing fees on the county's most popular beaches would reduce or eliminate the ability of many of Humboldt County residents to enjoy them," Bense-Kang wrote. (Indeed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 21 percent of Humboldt County residents live in poverty.) "Selling or relinquishing coastal and near-coast campgrounds and parks would consequently diminish opportunities to enjoy some of California's best coastal areas for visitors and locals alike."

In fact, a similar issue is playing out in Sonoma County. The California Coastal Commission will decide this week whether or not to allow the state to impose fees at state-owned public beaches, a measure that access advocates like Surfrider oppose. Even North Coast Sen. Mike McGuire weighed in on the issue in Sonoma, urging the Coastal Commission — which is partially tasked with protecting the coastline for the enjoyment of the public — to nix the fee proposal.

"We should be in the business of opening up our coast to all residents, no matter their socio-economic background ..." McGuire wrote. "Rather than taking a piecemeal approach, which this plan is, we should be introducing a statewide funding proposal that would eliminate the need for any beach fees to be established."

The Coastal Commission's decision could play into what Humboldt County may decide regarding day-use fees when it adopts a 2016-2017 budget in June.

The local support for Humboldt County parks appears to be strong. Along with the public response to the online poll and the Surfrider efforts, supervisors Mark Lovelace and Estelle Fennell told the Times-Standard they wouldn't support getting rid of the parks.

The real costs of maintenance — and the staggering insurance bills — have to be addressed, Mattson said. That means finding a balance — the right fees at the right places, the deferral of maintenance, cutbacks in services, or some combination thereof.

Mattson said his department doesn't want to relinquish properties or make it harder for people to access them, and he said he's had good conversations with the County Administrative Office about identifying funding sources to offset the deficit and keep all of the parks. He's glad the public has been involved. More people weighing in now means better decision-making when he takes his proposal to the supervisors in June.


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About The Author

Grant Scott-Goforth

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Grant Scott-Goforth has been an assistant editor and staff writer for The Journal since 2013.

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