State Park Fund Stash May Delay Closures
California Gov. Jerry Brown 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, a spokeswoman for the governor said Monday (July 23) as supporters who helped raise millions for the beleaguered system urged that the money be used for that purpose, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Elizabeth Ashford, a spokeswoman for Brown, said that his administration “is going to work with legislators to determine how this money can be used to mitigate park closures.”
On Friday, state officials said they had opened an investigation after learning that the California Department of Parks and Recreation had failed to report for more than a decade that it had $54 million stowed in special funds. Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned, and her deputy was fired.
Nonprofit leaders who raise money to benefit state parks said that using the newly discovered money for park operations will be a key step toward rebuilding public trust. But they warned that the windfall alone wouldn’t solve the troubled system’s problems.
“It is just appalling,” said Ann Briggs of the Coe Park Preservation Fund, which gave the state $279,000 in privately raised money to keep Henry W. Coe State Park in Santa Clara County open this year. “We don’t know what to think. … Our reaction has been one of total surprise, total shock that this has happened. We are not sure what is going to be the next step.”
The state, which has chronic deficits, slashed the parks department budget by more than $50 million over the past four years. Additionally, the parks department has deferred $1.3 billion in maintenance, said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the nonprofit California State Parks Foundation.
“We were shocked and a little bit appalled by this,” Goldstein said. “The community … has been working really, really hard to find solutions to keep parks open, and clearly many members of the department have been working alongside us, so when we hear there are financial resources that weren’t brought to bear, it’s hard to hear.”
Goldstein said the millions of dollars identified Friday do not change the system’s long-term challenges and may not even solve its short-term problems.
It’s still not clear why the parks department had squirreled away the $54 million or who knew about it. Coleman, the former parks director, has said she only recently learned of the extra money.
It was Coleman who warned last year that the department had no other choice but to close 70 parks this year to deal with the most recent budget cut of $22 million.
Goldstein said state lawmakers, who have power over how that money is spent, should “do the right thing” when they reconvene in August and appropriate at least some of the money to this year’s state parks budget.
It does not appear that all of the funding could be used for general park operations: While $20.4 million of it is in a fund meant for exactly that, the other $33.5 million is in the Off-Highway Vehicle Fund, and at least a portion of it is legally earmarked for off-highway vehicle parks.
There have been transfers out of that fund in the past, but there are outstanding legal questions about how much of the fund the state can use on other park spending. If any of the money is transferred out, there would likely be legal challenges, several state officials said.
Park supporters said that while the governor’s pledge appears to be the right thing to do, it doesn’t mitigate the frustration and disappointment that park lovers around the state are feeling, nor does it immediately answer questions about the future of many parks.
Lauren Dixon, deputy director of the Parks Alliance of Sonoma County, said the group has worked with 20 nonprofits to help save five parks in Sonoma County from closure, including Austin Creek State Recreation Area. A local nonprofit was in the process of finalizing an agreement to keep Austin Creek open when the news broke last week, Dixon said, and the future of that contract is now up in the air.
And at least one alliance-sponsored project was derailed immediately on word of Friday’s news, she said: a quarter-cent Sonoma County tax measure.
But she and other nonprofit leaders around the state said donors should not feel as if their money is going to be wasted.
“The nice thing is that we are able to tell people here, everyone who has given us money, that all the money stayed here – every single dollar that was given to us is still going to go to keeping local parks open,” Dixon said. “We aren’t the state, and we are doing this in the first place because the state was not able to follow through with its promise on public lands, and we needed to find a way to keep these parks open for the people of Sonoma County.”