The happy news is that Washington County's regional parks are attracting crowds of appreciative visitors, but their popularity has county workers scrambling to keep up with maintenance, law enforcement and sufficient funding to pay for services.

More evidence emerged last week of struggles in the county's seven parks, which now serve 1.5 million visitors a year. Only 15 full-time staff members manage all the parks — an increase of 1.5 positions since 2002 — while the number of visitors has more than doubled. About 35 seasonal workers, including lifeguards and office staff, are deployed at the parks.

"Just in the past five years or so we've seen about a half-million increase in visitors," Parks Director John Elholm told the County Board last week. Much of that increase has come at Big Marine Park Reserve near Marine on St. Croix, which has rocketed to the county's second most-used park since it opened just a few years ago.

Wear and tear is becoming most evident at Lake Elmo Park Reserve, where crowds of people often overwhelm the popular swim pond and adjacent picnic areas. In April, the County Board approved hiring another full-time deputy after Sheriff Bill Hutton said it had become increasingly difficult to respond to calls in parks on busy days.

Most of last week's discussion centered on fees charged for park services and how additional money could be raised.

"We certainly don't want to raise fees to the extent that we discourage people from using the park. The flip side would be increased public health costs," said Commissioner Fran Miron, referring to recent discussions about an upswing in obesity among county residents.

Miron also cautioned that increased costs to park visitors might hurt nearby businesses.

County records show that 44 percent of all park visitors come from outside Washington County, which is higher than the 40 percent benchmark most counties would expect. Commissioners discussed charging higher fees to out-of-county users.

"Too much of an increase could bring us out of line a little bit with our neighboring counties," Elholm said.

Don Theisen, the county's public works director, said that a growing demand for services has squeezed the parks staff to the point that they spend most of their time working in "active" areas such as restroom maintenance. Few resources remain for improving the parks' natural areas, he said, such as brush clearing and trail development.

Commissioner Gary Kriesel commended county employees for keeping parks in suitable shape despite staffing shortages. He suggested fees for horse owners who use the parks — some of whom, he said, have cut wire fences to enter from outside park boundaries.

Other suggestions from commissioners to raise money or cut costs included requiring wristbands for people at the swim pond, recruiting private vendors to replace the county's concession stand at the swim pond, and building a splash pad in the Lake Elmo park to take pressure off the beach around the pond.

The county already relies heavily on Sentence to Serve prisoners who work in the parks. Sometimes workers are assigned from other county departments to help park staff as well, Theisen said.

Some commissioners suggested county-city partnerships to help pay for park services, but County Administrator Molly O'Rourke said cities often view county parks as a drain to their resources and want help in return.

"We've actually staved off requests from cities that talk about a loss to their tax base," she said.

No action was taken at last week's meeting, one in a series of budget discussions this summer. If the board desires to spend more money on parks, needs could be addressed through the property tax levy next year or in the long-term capital improvement budget.

Potential expansion and improvements at the swim pond, Theisen said, would cost about $4 million.