Crunching the Numbers at the Parks Department

SAN MATEO COUNTY–The Parks Department is likely to face at least a 10 percent budget reduction next fiscal year, leading to increased overnight camping fees and higher house rentals for rangers.

A 10 percent reduction on its fiscal 2010-2011 budget, or a $654,000 cut, will also translate into the elimination of three vacant positions in the department, higher online park reservation fees and a reduction on vehicle fleet expenses, according to Sarah Medina, the department’s budget manager.

In order to garner revenue and avoid cuts on operational expenses, the department wants to put in place a differential fee pricing structure for overnight camping at Memorial Park, Medina said.

Currently, all camp sites in Memorial Park cost $21 a night. The department’s new measure will bump the prices to $25 per night for groups of eight; $30 per night for small trailer sites and $35 per night for recreational vehicles that are up to 30-feet long.

The increased prices will go into effect during the park’s peak season, starting May 8th and ending on Oct. 16. Memorial Park has nearly 100 percent occupancy during this period, Medina said.

Department leaders estimate the differential fee pricing will generate an extra $100,000 in annual revenue. This additional money will allow the department to stay in its rented offices in Redwood City, instead of moving to the Captain’s House, a property the department owns, Medina said.

“We are avoiding moving to Coyote Point Park,” she said. “Politically, it makes more sense for us to be here [in county premises] and to be more visible. If we can generate more money in camping revenue, we don’t need to move.”

Medina said increased revenue will help the department in case further cuts are needed in the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

“If next year the county says we need to reduce our budget more, then we will move to the park’s office, so that we don’t have to cut a field position,” she said. “But if the county is in better shape next year, we will move our budget target up or down.”

Rangers living in the parks will also feel the pinch: Their house rental prices will go up by 50 percent. According to budget documents, this is estimated to bring $30,000 in revenue to the department in the next two years.

Medina says residential rentals for about 45 rangers are “extraordinarily low.” The rates, ranging from $400 to $1,000, were put in place almost 20 years ago based on fair market value and the Consumer Price Index, she said.

But fair market value has never really happened. Instead, rangers were given the opportunity to live in the park for a low fee in exchange for security.

“Since rangers are no longer donating their time, but actually getting paid for it, we are going to go back to the fair market value and the CPI,” Medina said. “I’m looking at comparables for prices of rental homes, according to size and area.”

The department will increase the rental prices starting in July so that they are closer to market value. Since rent is paid out of the rangers’ salary, this means they will see a reduced paycheck.

There are a total of 10 residences within county parks. Rangers can live there based on their seniority and if they are interested in the property.

Medina said all rangers know rents are going up and have not raised concerns. But a ranger who spoke in condition of anonymity because he does not want to be singled-out said he was never informed. He pays $400 a month and has lived in one of the county parks for 20 years.

“You don’t increase revenue by doubling rangers’ rental houses,” he said. “My house is a shack. It has no insulation, no care. They have done nothing for me. It is in really poor shape. Other rangers live in much better conditions.”

San Mateo County Board of Supervisors will announce the budget cuts in December and will begin conversations with the public early next year. The first county budget draft is scheduled to be ready in March.

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