Economic casualty: Washington State county closes parks unit

OLYMPIA, Wash. — The Thurston County Parks and Recreation Department is scheduled to close May 31, a casualty of proposed budget cuts that could leave sports and outdoors enthusiasts and people with disabilities in a lurch.

County managers have recommended slashing this year's remaining $320,000 contribution from the operating fund, leaving the department with no money to pay its employees who maintain parks and manage sports leagues and recreation programs. Money for the part-time employees who run the activities, as well as associated costs, would continue to come from fees.

As a result, county parks are in danger of closing indefinitely and recreation programs are threatened. The county is attempting to keep some parks and programs operating by using other revenue and having other departments manage them, but those details still are being worked out. County commissioners must approve whatever emerges.

Regardless, the Parks and Recreation Department will cease to exist after more than 40 years.

"It's a sad time," said Parks director Michael Welter, who will retire after 33 years with the county. Nine other full-time employees will lose their jobs. "The economy has forced all of us to make decisions that we had hoped we wouldn't have to make."

Popular county parks, including Burfoot and Kenneydell and the Griffin athletic fields, have been closed since Jan. 1 because of earlier budget cuts. The department had planned to reopen them April 1 for the spring and summer, but their future now is unclear.

Also on the chopping block is the specialized recreation program, which allows people with developmental and physical disabilities to socialize while swimming, watching Seattle Mariners games and attending dances and movie nights under supervision.