- Associated Press - Saturday, February 24, 2018

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - State officials are making plans to reopen shuttered campgrounds, expand lifeguard coverage and hire more seasonal workers, thanks to a new funding stream for Connecticut’s 110 state parks.

It will mark the first time in two years the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has had the financial resources to take such steps. State budget problems had forced the agency to scale back. The General Assembly came up with the Passport to Parks initiative.

The influx of revenue will come from a new, $10 fee on two-year motor vehicle registrations. In return, residents with valid state license plates will now be able access all state parks for free. The program is projected to generate about $18.9 million, including revenue from camping fees, pavilion rentals and out-of-state visitors who will still be charged parking fees.

“It really has been a difficult couple of years,” said Tom Tyler, director of state parks. “We’re thrilled to be able to restore these services.”

But park advocates are voicing concerns about how some lawmakers already want to make changes to the program, such as exempting certain groups of people, including veterans and senior citizens, from having to pay the fee. Also, the Connecticut Forest and Park Association is worried about how the legislation creating the program was written - there is no language which actually appropriates the funds for the parks - and how lawmakers plan to divert $5 million of the money generated from the fee to the state’s main spending account, the general fund.

The legislation also redirects nearly $1 million from the program to pay for soil and water conservation districts and the Council on Environmental Quality.

Last week, Eric Hammerling, the association’s executive director, urged the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee to postpone taking the $5 million from the parks until there’s a better idea of how much money can be generated and how much the parks will actually need. Considering the parks will now be free to residents, many more people are expected to visit them.

“You don’t want to commit to such a large amount of the ‘passport’ funding to the general fund until you know what some of those costs are going to be because of increased visitation,” he said. It costs roughly $19 million to operate the state parks. Besides the revenue generated from the new program, there is another $4 million in the state budget for the parks.

“I would like to see them make it through a season and know how adequate it actually is,” said Hammerling.

With the new funding, DEEP said all eight lifeguarded state park beaches are expected to be fully staffed this summer. Also, the hours at the state’s museums and nature centers will be restored from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Four campgrounds in East Haddam, Voluntown, Kent and Sprague will reopen, while spring camping and fall camping will be restored at select locations..

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