Beleaguered state parks hid millions

07/26/2012

Advocates for cash-strapped state parks were shocked Friday at the announcement that California State Parks has been sitting on a “hidden” $54 million for the past 12 years.

State officials said they have opened an investigation after learning of the stashed millions, which the state’s Department of Parks and Recreation had failed to report for more than a decade. Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned, and her deputy was fired.

“The biggest thing to keep in mind is that this is all under investigation, and we don’t have answers yet,” California League of Park Associations President Carolyn Schoff told the Light. “The reports show that $54 million was found, but only $20.4 million of that is for state parks [directly]. We were cut $22 million, so we were still cut more than these funds would cover.”

Ms. Schoff said legislators must still determine how the discovered funds could be reallocated, and whether or not state parks would be given the authority to spend it to keep parks open.

Her organization has served as an umbrella for nonprofits raising money to assist state parks, including Samuel P. Taylor and Tomales Bay. Even if the entire $20.4 million was allowed to go directly to the parks, she said, donors should keep in mind that there would still be a shortfall, and the money would only fill part of the budget gap for a single year.

“We’re hoping to get more details on this as we move forward,” she said. “In the meantime, we’ll continue to do what we do, which is support local parks. We all worked very hard to raise funds to keep parks open, and we’re really shocked by this news. We are not sure what to make of it.”

At a Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting this Tuesday, what was supposed to be a first reading of a measure to add a .25 percent county sales tax to help keep state parks open, protect open spaces and preserve farmland was delayed. The proposal slated $500,000 of the estimated $10 million expected from the new tax to keep two Marin County state parks, China Camp and Olompali, open. That funding was quickly dropped, county parks director and general manager Linda Dah said, in light of the “pretty disturbing revelations about the state’s management of their funds.”

Of California’s 70 state parks, only one—Mitchell Caverns in the Mojave Desert—was closed, partially due to renovations. Ms. Schoff said that many of the remaining 69 were kept open largely through donations from the public and some larger, private contributions.

She and other nonprofit leaders raising money to bolster state parks said that using the newly discovered money for park operations will be a key step toward rebuilding public trust. The state, which slashed the parks department budget by more than $50 million over the past four years, had also deferred $1.3 billion in maintenance.

“The biggest concern is that the public doesn’t lose hope,” Ms. Schoff said. “Unfortunately this kind of put the black eye on state parks, and may make it more difficult to continue the cause.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Jerry Brown said his office will work with lawmakers to determine how some of the $54 million stashed by the parks department can be used to help keep state parks open.