Deal will keep Tomales Bay open

02/21/2013

County officials struck a deal with California last week ensuring short-term funding for three state parks slated to close last year in Marin, setting the stage for dozens of similar deals sought by the state’s Department of Parks and Recreation to reverse plans for deep budget cuts.

The nearly $2 million agreement, made official at a signing ceremony on Saturday, authorized the Marin State Parks Association, a nonprofit that formed in the past year to seek financial support for parks facing closure in the county, to help manage Tomales Bay, Olompali and China Camp State Parks.

The department agreed to match the more than $1 million raised by the association, which drew hundreds of thousands of dollars in county grants to help extend hours and cover
expenses.

“This is Marin,” supervisor Judy Arnold said by phone this week. “We are parks and open space and farmland.”

Ms. Arnold is among nearly a dozen officials—including federal, state and local politicians and park supervisors—who worked to reach what is only the second agreement since the department developed a financial assistance plan to avoid closing some 70 parks last year amid dwindling funding and budget mismanagement.

The agreement also renewed a contract between the National Park Service and Samuel P. Taylor State Park.  

It came days after the release of an audit showing the agency has failed to adequately track operating expenses of its 278 parks and other recreational spaces across the state, the Associated Press reported last week.

For years, the department has based its budget on the total operating costs of multiple parks within a district, rather than on the costs of each park. That approach, based on 10-year-old figures, perpetuated budget shortfalls in a state affected acutely by the national recession.

“We’re in a tight pinch,” department spokesman Roy Stearns said by phone last week. He added that about $110 million is available for parks this year, down from $175 million six years ago.

The audit, prompted by an investigation last year into some $54 sequestered in two separate funds, led the department to take steps to increase fiscal oversight and revise management policies partly to “regain the trust of all Californians and put the department on a better fiscal path for the future,” the agency said in a news release.

At a meeting with auditors in Sacramento on Tuesday, the new state parks director, Anthony Jackson, said the department has made changes to its leadership.

“We acknowledge that unfortunate and improper actions occurred and need to be fixed,” Mr. Jackson, a retired Marine Corps officer appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown late last year after the resignation of former director Ruth Coleman, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying.

The findings also led to new legislation, proposed by Congressman Jared Huffman, providing $13 million to the department to set up two types of financial assistance agreements for parks. These include a loan agreement, in which nonprofits raise money to pay state employees to run the park, and an operating agreement—like in Marin—authorizing nonprofits to manage the park with funds matched by the department.

The contract between the department and association is set to expire in mid-2015, after which officials will consider an extension.