California's State Parks Cuts Likely
Santa Cruz County beaches in Northern California, where millions come to splash and surf each year, saw fewer lifeguard patrols, less upkeep of restrooms and even closures of campgrounds, parking lots and visitor centers this past year.
State Parks officials say expect more of the same, the San Jose Mercury News reported.
This week, California voters rejected Proposition 21, the ballot measure that would have raised vehicle license fees by $18 to head off the continuing slide in state park finances. As a result, the dozen or more Santa Cruz County beaches within the California park system remain at the mercy of a withering state budget, meaning more cutbacks are all but certain.
"We're going to have essentially all of the same challenges that we had last year," said Kirk Lingenfelter, the parks superintendent who oversees parks and beaches from Panther Beach to Palm Beach. "We get so much visitation in the coastal areas that we're hard-pressed to keep up with the demand."
The struggle isn't limited to the coast. The 150 parks in the 278-park system that had closures or service reductions last year, from historic landmarks like Hearst Castle to the unspoiled wilderness of Mount Tamalpais and Humboldt Redwoods, are likely to see similar cost-cutting measures.
"This is not an easy time," said Ruth Coleman, the director of California State Parks. "I do expect that we will be seeing no added service levels and in some cases less service levels than we had … (and) we'll look at closures as a last resort."
With the state budget signed less than a month ago, Santa Cruz County officials are yet to identify where cuts will be made locally during the fiscal year through June. But like last year, they say they'll try to make service reductions as discreet as possible, such as closing picnic areas and curtailing maintenance during the slower winter months.
Proposition 21, had it passed, would have generated nearly $500 million a year for the park system. The current ledger for operations, however, stands below $300 million, similar to what it was last year but with a hiring freeze having left fewer employees and a larger maintenance backlog.
Park officials estimate more than $1.3 billion of repairs are now needed statewide, many of them in Santa Cruz County's coastal parks. Several restrooms and picnic areas at the beach require attention, while historic sites like the homestead at Wilder Ranch are in need of a major overhaul.
A panel of State Parks managers had been meeting privately to prioritize the projects that would get funding under Proposition 21. But that's now a moot issue.
Coleman says without the measure's influx of funds her department plans to work harder to find badly-needed revenue.
A lot of new park supporters were identified during the Proposition 21 campaign, she says, many whom can be tapped for ideas and even financial contributions. In addition, she says, the department will look to build more corporate partnerships.
"We're not feeling sorry for ourselves," Coleman said. "I look at this as an opportunity."
Proposition 21, which would have given motorists free admission to parks in exchange for the higher registration fee, failed by 16 percentage points in Tuesday's election.
The margin shocked many supporters, who spent more than $7 million to promote the measure compared to less than $100,000 spent by the opposition.
"I don't think this was a referendum on whether people cared about their parks or conservation. I think it was rather the malaise of the moment," said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation which sponsored the initiative. "There was a lot of anti-tax, anti-fee sentiment out there."
Several coastal counties in Northern California bucked the trend against Proposition 21. Santa Cruz County had the highest level of support in the state, at 67.8%.
Goldstein said it was too soon to know whether a similar measure would be back on the ballot soon, but she vowed to continue looking for ways to help finance the park system.
"State parks are just as vulnerable as they were before, and it's only going to get worse we suspect," she said.
Several Proposition 21 supporters are holding out hope that Gov.-elect Jerry Brown will make state parks more of a priority than his predecessor. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, facing one of the worst financial crises in California history, proposed closing as many as 200 state parks to close the state budget gap.
A spokesperson for Brown, who was in Sacramento on Thursday (Nov. 4) to begin discussing his administration's budget plan, said Thursday the governor elect would do all he could to protect parks.
"It's fair to say state parks have been a priority for Jerry Brown during his career as a public servant, and I don't expect that to change," said spokesman Sterling Clifford. "At the same time, we have to be realistic about what resources are available."