Editorial: Calif. Needs a Park System Overhaul
Editor's Note: The following editorial appeared in the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise.
Reports of scandal and mismanagement last year made clear the need to overhaul California’s state parks system. A new state advisory panel on parks can provide useful input. But more advice matters little if the people with the real authority do not make basic changes. Legislators need to ensure that the state parks system is properly managed and financially sustainable over the long-term.
The state this month unveiled a 12-member volunteer panel, known as Parks Forward, tasked with crafting a blueprint for the park system’s future. The chairs of the privately financed commission will be former state Sen. Christine Kehoe of San Diego and Bay Area businessman and conservationist Lance Conn. The group plans to present its recommendations to the Legislature in the fall of 2014.
But legislators already have strong advice from the state’s legislative analyst and the watchdog Little Hoover Commission. Another high-profile outside review will achieve nothing if legislators fail to act on the advice. The governor replaced the agency’s manager last year, but ensuring a fiscally sustainable, well-managed park system requires more than just a change at the top.
California already knows the state Parks and Recreation Department needs a better operating model. Gov. Jerry Brown last year proposed closing 70 of the state’s 280 parks, in order to save $22 million — though no one could adequately explain why trimming $22 million out of an operating budget of nearly $500 million should cause shuttering a quarter of the state’s parks. Then state officials announced in July 2012 they had discovered a $54 million surplus in the parks department. A state auditor’s report in February said the parks agency lacked a clear picture of how much each park cost to operate, and made the decision to close parks without any real idea of how much money that step might save. The auditor also found that the department had been reporting incorrect budget totals as far back as 1999, for reasons that no one could explain.
Lax fiscal oversight is an unacceptable approach — and is particularly galling in a state with chronically unstable finances. State parks need to be more creative and financially adept to help the system thrive. Legislators, for example, should give parks the flexibility to pursue creative ways of generating income beyond merely raising fees. The parks agency should ease the department’s fiscal strain by transferring some parks of mainly local interest to local control, and expanding the use of partnerships with nonprofit groups and private companies in running parks. And the system should bring in managers with business and fiscal expertise, instead of mainly relying on park rangers with peace officer training to oversee operations. The Legislature also needs to find ways to tackle a $1.3 billion backlog in park maintenance projects.
Californians value their state parks, which include some of the most scenic landscapes in the state. But preserving those amenities for future generations to enjoy requires a more effective approach than haphazard oversight, sloppy accounting and outdated attitudes.