Tourism and recreation officials are considering entry fees to raise money for fixing up Oklahoma’s 33 state parks.
Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department Executive Director Jerry Winchester said by shorting maintenance a little bit year after year, state officials guaranteed the parks system would end up where it is now: In need of an additional $40 million a year for the next several years.
Winchester said it’s not unlike what happened with the state capitol, which is now in the midst of a restoration financed by $120 million in bonds.
"There’s a lot of work being done on it all of a sudden at once, and so, instead, had work been done as it needed to have been over the years, we wouldn’t be so greatly inconvenienced with the fact that there’s just — the whole place is almost shut down at one time," Winchester said.
Deputy Director Gino DeMarco said there is some good news for lawmakers. He and Winchester estimate they can cut costs 15% in the next year and collect 60% more revenue in the next two years.
"Of that $40 million, we’re saying we think we can have $30 million of it without any help at all from the legislature," DeMarco said.
Winchester and DeMarco are considering instituting fees at most park entry points. They said only two surrounding states don’t have entry fees, and their parks are funded through taxes on sports equipment or hunting licenses.
They don't expect Oklahomans would bear most of the costs from entry fees. Winchester said Lake Murray and Beavers Bend account for about one-third of Oklahoma’s annual state park visitors, and on a recent trip to the popular parks, he noticed about 80% of vehicles sporting Texas license plates.
He said most of those Texas visitors weren't camping or participating in other activities Oklahoma charges fees for.
"They brought their boats up, they parked in our parking lot, they emptied their trash in our dumpster, they used the bathrooms there. We collected $0 for that," Winchester said.
Winchester said Oklahoma is among about a half-dozen states that don’t charge state park entry fees.
Entry fees aren't the only measure the tourism and recreation department is considering. Winchester said they're looking into cutting back on golf course operations, noting the state subsidizes each round of golf by $68 for a total cost of around $250,000 a year.
Winchester, a longtime oil executive appointed tourism and recreation director by Gov. Kevin Stitt earlier this year, said the agency is also looking at making state park operations more efficient with tools like online reservation systems.