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Park user fees need to go to safety campaign

In the tragic aftermath of the latest drowning deaths at Henry Hagg Lake, it’s time for Washington County to take immediate steps to improve public safety at its Scoggins Valley Park, which surrounds the reservoir.

Money is an issue, but only in the sense that a few simple improvements could save taxpayers millions of dollars in potential lawsuits if current policies don’t change. Well, actually, there is another issue concerning money: How does the county spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars it takes in every year in park user fees? Those fees recently increased 20 percent. Certainly the county can find a few hundred dollars for safety at the park.

For years, as a matter of public policy, the county has refused responsibility for warning signs or other public safety steps, citing fear of liability in the event of drownings. Last week, officials finally agreed to post a few warning signs, but they must do much more.

Right now there are two life jacket loaner kiosks at the park. They were installed as an Eagle Scout project using donated materials. They are maintained by the Safe Kids Coalition. For the first four years, they were maintained by a local volunteer and employees of the Hillsboro Fire Department. Now, employees of Forest Grove Fire & Rescue also work hard on this effort.

There is no question that Safe Kids would do more for the safety of Hagg Lake visitors, but the group has no staff, no money and no authority. The Forest Grove and Hillsboro fire departments have no authority at the lake either, and I contend that taxpayers in those cities should not bear the cost. Not when the county is raking in all those user fees.

The county has a full-time staff of employees at the park. Under normal conditions, the life jacket kiosks take only a few minutes of work per week, if you don’t count the hour or more of round-trip travel time from Forest Grove or Hillsboro every time someone has to check to make sure there are life jackets hanging on the hooks. Certainly, the current parks staff could take the responsibility of stocking life jackets at kiosks they walk past many times each day in the course of their jobs.

The county employs a staff of rangers to ticket people who don’t buy parking passes. Deputies are at the park daily, ticketing people for boating violations and illegal swimming. Some of that time could be diverted to stocking the kiosks and walking the beaches and explaining safety without adding to costs. The loss of a few dollars in fines is minimal when compared to the loss of human life.

Ken Bilderback lives in Gaston.

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