---- — CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Supporters of a bill to end free admission for seniors at state parks said Tuesday that the new fees could generate more than $300,000 a year, but opponents argued the change would make parks unaffordable for low-income seniors.
The House Resources, Recreation and Development Committee held a hearing Tuesday on a bill that would require people age 65 or older to pay the same day-use fees as other adults, usually $4 or $5, or buy season’s passes for $20 each, a third of the usual cost for such a pass. The bill also would end free admission for lawmakers, the Executive Council and the governor’s staff and would get rid of coupon books that offer 20 percent discounts.
Unlike every other state, New Hampshire’s state parks system relies entirely on admission fees for its operating budget, and it has struggled with large deficits in recent years.
Sen. Nancy Stiles, the bill’s sponsor, said if the self-funded system is going to continue it doesn’t make sense to offer free admission to large groups.
“We cannot continue to expect our parks to be self-sufficient if we continue to identify groups that don’t have to pay anything to enjoy the wonder and beauty of our parks,” said Stiles, R-Hampton.
The New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation says it manages nearly 100 properties’ campgrounds, beaches, natural areas, historic sites and recreational trails. The division’s director, Philip Bryce, estimated that seniors make up about 20,000 of the 735,000 visitors to day-use parks each year. Charging them admission could generate $320,000, he said, assuming 60 percent them purchase the $20 annual passes. That money would be enough to operate four or five midsize parks, he said.
“In recent years we’ve been unable to open some parks, even if they are revenue generating, and we’ve been able to provide limited if any support to non-revenue-generating parks,” he said.
Analyzing the current fee system, he said, is part of a larger effort that includes finding ways to control costs, generate more revenue and work more with outside groups to support the parks. He called the proposed $20 season’s pass a bargain, especially compared with the $15 daily parking fee at Hampton Beach State Park.
“We would love it if all the parks were free, but we’re just not in that world,” he said.
Sara Dustin, a member of the New Hampshire Alliance for Retired Americans, said many members of her organization oppose the bill. Dustin, 75, said she still works as an antiques dealer to supplement her $888-per-month Social Security income and would not be able to afford the $20 pass.
“I wasn’t even able to pay my rent last month, and I’m not atypical of other old ladies in the state,” she said.
Susan Bruce, of Dunbarton, pointed out that neighboring states give seniors free access to parks or charge very little for lifetime passes. Gouging people on fixed incomes won’t fix a funding system that doesn’t work, she said.
“This bill is so mean-spirited,” she said, “we should all be ashamed it was ever written.”