Broke park system gives workers free housing

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by SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @SFrameK5

KING5.com

Posted on February 23, 2011 at 11:50 PM

Updated Thursday, Feb 24 at 12:29 AM

PORT TOWNSEND --  A turn of the century home in Fort Flagler State Park on a finger of the Olympic Peninsula features a sweeping view of Admiralty Inlet and miles of pristine coastline in the front yard. The rent? $156 a month.

Nearby in Fort Warden State Park near Port Townsend a 4,500 square foot home featuring 4 bedrooms and a roomy backyard goes for a little more. Rent here? $180 a month.

South of Chehalis at Lewis and Clark State Park a historic log home surrounded by forestland and nature trails rents for $156 a month.

The KING 5 Investigators have found that these are just a few of nearly 200 housing units across Washington that park rangers and other State Parks employees have the opportunity to call home for next to nothing. Employees pay a minimal charge for utilities. The rest is free.

Types of housing

Most park homes are no-frills set ups. The cheapest spots, such as RV hook-ups, mobile homes and small rustic cabins cost $48 dollars a month. The most expensive rate we found by going through State Parks public records from 2010 is located in Loomis Lake State Park near Long Beach. The ranger there pays $186 a month.

Cost of doing business?

Mike Zimmerman is the Fort Flagler State Park Manager. He has 37 years of service under his belt. For the last 13 years the state’s given him a priceless perk: the keys to the home with the sweeping view of Admiralty Inlet. The park service says having rangers like Zimmerman living where they work is an inexpensive way to provide security and service 24-7.

“I’ve had people knocking on the door looking for as little as 'we couldn’t find the salt shaker' to 'I’m locked out of my car,'” said Zimmerman. “We’ve also had parents say 'our kids have been on a bike ride or a hike and it’s been a couple of hours and I’m really concerned'. So we’ve done a search and rescue.”

State Parks managers also say having rangers live where they work deters vandalism and theft. But with the park system going broke, should the housing be that cheap?

No money

State Parks needs to come up with $64-million in new revenue over the next two years or risk being shut down altogether. Lawmakers are considering legislation now to charge park visitors for day use which State Parks leaders think will generate the needed dollars.  Click here to read the proposal. Currently, only overnight campers pay a fee.

“They're giving away free housing and so they're giving away the access to their assets virtually for nothing. Then at the same time (they're) saying they don't have enough money for maintenance or to keep the parks open. So there's a real disconnect as to how they're managing their own resources," said Paul Guppy, Research Director for the Washington Policy Center, a conservative public policy think tank.

KING 5 has found that some State Parks employees with housing benefits aren’t rangers. Some are employed by the state agency but the housing doesn’t have a direct connection to their jobs. We found an office assistant, volunteers, and several park aides who pay only utilities and some additional taxes.

Mike Sternback, Director of Operations at Washington State Parks, says those employees serve a valuable purpose. More eyes on the ground is better for the park and the public. “It keeps a presence at the park which discourages vandalism,” said Sternback. "The housing is there for the convenience of the park.”

Park rangers have a choice to live in the park or not. For those who choose to do so, Sternback says a lot is expected of them, at all hours. “This isn’t the same as a perk of a house that exists in the neighborhood that they live in. This is a house that exists in this person’s workplace. It has expectations that come along with it; that this person is going to be responding to emergencies, responding to the public as they come to their door,” said Sternback.

Even with late night calls, Zimmerman says he wouldn’t live anywhere else.  He also says that for rangers living in the nicest homes, like his at Fort Flagler, paying some rent would be fair. “I have a beautiful two story house with a wonderful view that is probably on a million dollar piece of property,” said Zimmerman. “There’s probably room for some additional rent, or additional payment.”

Five years ago California passed a law mandating that a fair market value be set for every home on state land and that the employees living in them must pay it.

In Washington, park system managers have never brought the issue of charging employees rent to the bargaining table in negotiations with the union representing park employees. But given the current economic realities they might consider it. "We're really forced to put everything on the table as a potential money saver and revenue generator at this point," said Sternback.  

MORE:  In California there's no more free lunch for state housing. Five years ago they passed a law saying employees living in housing owned by the state must pay fair market value for rent.  Read more about the CA law here.

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