Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Wanna pay more for camping and sightseeing in Wisconsin? Walker wants you to

In addition to decisions relating to whether to get rid of the state property tax that pays for Wisconsin's Forestry operations, the Joint Finance Committee will also talk about how to fund Wisconsin State Parks, and whether the state should raise fees for the second straight budget. These discussions follow a decision in the 2015-17 Walker/WisGOP budget that removed all General Fund tax dollars from parks operations, and raised admission fees for vehicles visiting State Parks, along with raising camping fees in state parks and forests.

Those 2015 moves are not projected to bring in enough money on their own to make the parks self-sustaining, so the DNR was tasked with coming up with identifying other ways to come up with the money. Here's what they found.
With the elimination of GPR support for parks operations and the recognition that the fee increases included in 2015 Act 55 [the 2015-17 state budget] were not likely to generate sufficient revenues to support authorized ongoing expenditures going into the 2017-19 biennium, 2015 Act 55 required DNR to study and prepare a report regarding potential additional sources of revenue for parks operations and maintenance. The Department's report noted that the parks account was expected to have a projected structural imbalance (authorized expenditures exceeding anticipated revenues) of approximately $1.4 million annually. The report included four short-term revenue options as well as four long-term options. As noted in the report, the short-term recommendations would primarily involve demand-based pricing to align fee structures with local market conditions. The report identified six properties accounting for approximately 33% of the estimated total 17 million parks visitors in fiscal year 2015-16, including Devil's Lake, Governor Dodge, High Cliff, Kohler-Andrae, Peninsula, and Willow River State Parks.
And the Walker Administration is following some of those DNR recommendations in this budget, including a plan to charge higher fees at the most popular state parks, and allowing park visitors to buy into an annual admission sticker during the year.
Under the proposed two-tiered fee structure annual admission fees at the other parks would remain the same as under current law. DNR noted in the Act 55 report this fee structure would require differentiating stickers between the admissions options. Further, the Department indicates that if this proposed structure were implemented, visitors could "upgrade" from a daily pass to an annual pass during the year. For example, if a resident had paid for two daily admissions at high-tier Wisconsin State Parks already during a calendar year ($13 each), on their third visit to a high-tier property, they could choose to purchase an "upgrade" to an annual admission for $12, or the difference between the two daily fees purchased ($26) and the annual admission fee ($38). Department staff indicate that this proposed fee structure is currently being considered, but no final determination has been made regarding its implementation. Further, as the bill would allow the Department to charge a range of admission and camping fees at different properties at different times of the year, this fee proposal or a different fee proposal could be instituted or altered at the Secretary's directive. ...

The bill would increase the range of nightly camping fees the Department may charge by up to $10. A plan currently under consideration by DNR, as described in March, 2017, correspondence, would increase nightly camping fees as follows at five high-demand parks, including Devil's Lake, High Cliff, Kohler-Andrae, Peninsula and Willow River: (a) for electric sites, by $10 from May 1 to October 31; and (b) for non-electric sites, by $5 from the Friday preceding Memorial Day to Labor Day. Increased revenues from these camping fees are estimated at $220,000 in 2017-18 and $875,000 annually beginning in 2018-19.
Interestingly, the Parks Account turned out fine in the last fiscal year, before some of the newly-increased fees hit. But the LFB says that was a one-time fluke that shouldn’t be counted on for the future, and that the only thing allowing the Parks Account to be self-sustaining for this year is lower staffing.
….Although actual fiscal year 2015-16 revenues to the parks account were higher than expected and significantly exceeded actual expenditures, favorable weather conditions and low gas prices likely contributed to revenues exceeding estimates. In fiscal year 2016-17, it is estimated that authorized expenditures from the parks account would exceed anticipated revenues by approximately $1.2 million. However, the Department has maintained a number of vacancies in the parks account and the vacancy rate remains at approximately 28% in May, 2017. As a result, fiscal year 2016-17 expenditures are expected to be approximately $1.25 million less than authorized expenditures….. Increased revenues from these [new] admission fees [at the high-demand parks] are estimated at $925,000 in 2017-18 and $1,850,000 annually beginning in 2018-19 (Alternative A1). In combination with higher camping fees that DNR may institute as described in a later section, annual parks account revenues would increase by an estimated $2.7 million once in full effect by 2018-19.
Those higher admission fees, along with the higher camping fees, would result in another $3.87 million over the 2017-19 biennium, allowing the DNR’s Parks Account to be self-sustaining while filling in some of those remaining vacant jobs.

Of course, this also makes those high-demand parks and the campgrounds less affordable and/or utilized by some people (which may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your point of view). And there is an argument to be made that we could avoid any fee increases over the next 2 years, and see what the long-term effect of 2015-17’s higher fees are. We have the breathing room, since there was $9.16 million in the Parks Account last July 1, and the Parks Account is projected to have $9.24 million available on this July 1.

If the Joint Finance Committee decided to not to change fees, the LFB indicates that there would be just under $6 million of cushion that the Parks Account could absorb in case of a low-attended year or some kind of higher costs that have to be taken care of. This would be risky and leave the Parks Account with an annual deficit of well over $1 million a year once it is fully staffed, but also may be an option if there is sufficient money to carry over.

Or, we could be like Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota, and show that all Wisconsinites should be invested in their state parks, and use General Fund dollars. This seems unlikely in this tight budget, but it’s worthy to make the contrast, particularly since it is FREE to visit state parks in Iowa and Illinois due to that usage of general tax dollars to fund the parks.

Regardless of how you look at it, keeping with this “Chamber of Commerce” mentality at the state parks is something we need to keep our eyes on, and work to maintain access and affordability to. If we have a true “business mentality”, we should recognize that one of the state’s few advantages is natural beauty, and that can be used to gain an edge in quality of life, in tourism and in attracting talent to come here.

Can't get this in most places.


  1. But Wisconsinites keep voting against quality of life and sustainable tourism, and we sure don't want talented people moving here and making us look stoopid. So it's one of them "win-wins."

  2. For the record, looks like they kept the annual fees the same, but allowed camping to be raised by up to $10 a night and park admission by up to $5.

    Also interesting is that they set aside $1 million in each of the next two years for "development and maintenance activities" on state park properties.

    That $2 million likely means that the Parks Account will go down slightly over the course of the next two years, but that's also set up to be one-time spending.

  3. Sounds like they're hell bent on killing the DNR's magazine too.

    I'd like to see some group take that operation up when they kill it - maybe a union that wants to break out in a new direction? Maybe even WisDems?

    It sounds like the magazine has a pretty good subscriber base - I've read 85,000.

    1. As of last night's action,they're keeping DNR magazine, but they are cutting it to 4 times a year instead of 6.

      Interestingly, the LFB said the magazine got nearly 2,000 new subscriptions in December and January, after Walker and the DNR said they wanted to kill it.