A new study has found that California’s state parks system is top-heavy and has been slow to seize on moneymaking opportunities that could help it recover from deep fiscal wounds, some of which were self-inflicted.
U-T San Diego reported that the independent review also unearthed erratic and antiquated accounting systems, over-reliance on a few parks to generate the most income, an inability to cash in on concession contracts and a slothlike approach to attracting more users, especially to waterfront parks.
The findings by FTI Consulting highlight many of the challenges for the state Department of Parks and Recreation as it struggles to move beyond financial scandal and restore public trust.
The 180-page financial assessment also notes familiar problems that have long plagued parks: stagnant state revenues, a staggering list of unfunded repairs and renovations, and state bond accounts that are about to run dry.
Parks Director Anthony Jackson, a retired Marine major general from Fallbrook who was tapped by Gov. Jerry Brown to turn the troubled department around 13 months ago, said there is little in the report to disagree with.
The department has launched a number of new initiatives, such as pushing to add more camping at popular parks to generate income, working with major retailers to sell park passes, concentrating improvements at popular waterfront parks, modernizing fee collections, adopting a priority list for maintenance and building projects, and imposing more internal accounting controls, Jackson said.
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California’s state parks are mostly identified with long walks in the redwoods, camping under the stars and beachcombing.
But as the state’s population evolves — in color, age and recreational tastes — so too must its parks, say those developing a new vision for the 280-park system that draws 70 million visitors a year.
U-T San Diego reported that the Parks Forward Commission will be in San Diego Monday (Oct. 14) as part of a statewide swing to gather information and the public’s advice before drafting recommendations on how the state can polish what some say is its tarnished crown jewel.
A draft report suggesting answers to that question is due out in April with a final set of recommendations scheduled to be delivered to governor and lawmakers by September.
More immediately, the commission is looking at ways to reverse tumbling revenues and restore public trust in the wake of revelations of financial mismanagement.
More long-term, commissioners hope to offer proposals to make parks more inviting and more accessible, particularly in addressing the interests of the growing number of Latinos and younger people married to their apps, GPS and Google.
“There is a tremendous opportunity through the Parks Forward (Commission) to better connect with Latinos. The values are already there, and shared,” said Marisa Quiroz of the San Diego Foundation, one of the listed speakers. “I am excited for what these public conversations will bring and see positive things on the horizon for increasing access to the outdoors and connecting more people to nature.”
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Lawmakers have sent Gov. Jerry Brown a bill designed to deter a repeat of the financial scandal that rocked the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
The bill by Democratic Sen. Richard Roth of Riverside requires that state department heads swear under penalty of perjury that they are sending accurate budget information to the state Department of Finance. Violations could bring prison terms of up to four years.
SB801 is in response to the discovery last summer of $54 million hidden in two parks department special funds.
Part of the problem was that parks officials did not provide proper financial data to state budget officials. The parks director and others lost their jobs.
Senators agreed to Assembly amendments on a 37-0 vote Monday, sending the bill to the governor.
A group of California business, education and nonprofit leaders have agreed to help revamp the state parks system in an effort to restore confidence and financial stability to an institution rocked by scandal.
The dozen volunteers will spend the next 18 months addressing the problems that led to the state threatening to close 70 of the 280 parks in the system after long years of funding shortages — and more recent revelations that now-departed leaders socked money in a secret fund.
According to the Redding Record Searchlight, the Parks Forward Commission will design a blueprint to make the park system financially viable by studying everything from potential revenue sources to whether a lack of innovation at the top is tied to the practice of promoting only law enforcement rangers to leadership positions.
“Under the weight of budget cuts, added acreage and outmoded systems, our parks are struggling to meet the needs of Californians, and visitors from around the country and world,” said John Laird, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources. “This is a top-notch panel that will roll up its sleeves to craft a long-term plan for a financially sustainable and functionally relevant state parks system that meets the needs of a changing population.”
Laird said everything is on the table.
The Legislature ordered the formation of the advisory group in the wake of the scandals.
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The California State Parks system is grappling with modern funding problems as it strains for cash while its staffing, recreation and maintenance needs grow. But according to critics and even the parks’ new director, the department’s business practices are stuck in the 1950s.
Bay Nature reported that to pay for parking at the parks, visitors must shove exact change and cash into metal posts known as “iron rangers.” Accounting and budgeting software lacks consistency throughout the state from park to park. Park rangers are still required to have law enforcement experience, even though much of their work involves providing education, visitor assistance and community programs. And state parks has yet to create a working relationship with the state travel and tourism commission to market the parks.
A bit of modernization and thoughtful reworking could help the cash-strapped park system regain its footing as it searches for ways to become economically sustainable, according to a couple of study commissions seeking to revamp the department.
The most recent effort was announced by state parks and the California Natural Resources Agency in early June with the formation of the Parks Forward Commission. The panel of experts and citizens are being chosen by Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird to recommend improvements to state parks’ financial, operational and cultural practices.
Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman for California State Parks, declined to list the specific problems the commission plans to address, but she said the panel will consider any viable solutions that would help sustain the parks.
“Everything’s going to be on the table, as we understand it,” she said. “It’s going to be a top to bottom assessment of the state park system, including the 280 parks.”
Major General Anthony Jackson, the new state parks chief who stepped in after former director Ruth Coleman resigned in the midst of a budget scandal, has been more blunt about the department’s outdated practices. While speaking at a Regional Parks Association forum on June 15 in Oakland, Jackson said that state parks hasn’t made a cultural or business change since the 1950s and continues to lack a marketing or business department.
Jackson said he will create a new business and marketing department in the next couple months and will begin promoting the parks more aggressively with state park passes for sale at retail outlets, as well as television advertising campaigns.
“We haven’t done a good job of marketing what we have, and need a broader tourism strategy,” said Stuart Drown, executive director of the Little Hoover Commission, a bipartisan state agency that also offered recommendations to improve California State Parks.
The California state parks system, beset by financial problems and scandal, is launching a study commission that leaders hope will reshape the system and restore public confidence and financial stability.
As reported by the Associated Press, the group of private sector business leaders will study everything from how big the park system should be, to whether individual parks can do a better job generating revenue, and if the current practice of promoting only law enforcement rangers to leadership positions has led to a lack of innovation at the top.
“Everything is going to be on the table,” John Laird, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, told The Associated Press.
On Monday, Laird is scheduled to announce formation of the independent Parks Forward Commission, a privately financed panel that will study how to revamp the parks system for 18 months. It comes a year after scandals and problems threatened to shutter a quarter of the state’s 280 parks.
Laird will appoint up to a dozen leaders from business, finance, public policy and arts communities to examine the structure of the department and assess future needs for a state of 38 million people and growing.
“They have to be intellectually honest and creative in coming up with solutions, especially in how we are organized,” said Anthony Jackson, a retired Marine Corps major general appointed last fall to lead the parks department out of its troubles.
Jackson already has hired new top management and is looking at other changes. Staff is testing technology that allows visitors to swipe credit cards to pay for entrance and parking, rather than collecting cash and driving it to the bank as is done now in what Jackson called “1950s technology.”
Jackson also is looking at making park passes more accessible by selling them at retail sporting goods outlets, as fishing and hunting licenses are.
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Over the years, California has added more parks to its state system than it can afford and should consider turning over control to local entities of the one-third that lack statewide significance, says a new analysis of problems that led to the threatened closure of 70 of the sites.
According to the Associated Press, the report released Monday (March 25) by the Little Hoover Commission even suggested that tourist favorite Hearst Castle might be better run by an operator such as the Getty Museum that is more versed in protecting the hilltop mansion’s European art collection.
While the outlandish Central Coast home of William Randolph Hearst is a major source of revenue, its upkeep exceeds the income it generates through ticket sales and the cost of needed maintenance is as high as $60 million.
“We have to take a fresh and rigorous look at the system from top to bottom,” said Stuart Drown, former executive director of the commission, a state oversight agency. “We need a new business model and fresh thinking.”
From the coast to the redwoods, the California parks system protects some of the most historic and breathtaking places in the world. For years, the department has allowed millions of dollars in maintenance problems to pile up as it struggled with shrinking budgets and a manager mindset unaccustomed to generating revenue or asking for help, the report said.
The commission began looking at the state park system a year ago. After decades of decreasing funding, a $22 million cut at the time from its $779 million budget threatened the closure of a quarter of the 278 parks in the system. Officials were unable to explain how the parks were chosen or the cost of operating individual sites.
The revelations — plus the discovery last year of a secret $54 million fund — damaged the public’s faith in the park system, even as dozens of volunteer groups were scrambling to raise funds and form partnerships to keep them open.
“The old model is obsolete,” the report said.
The commission is asking the governor and elected officials to give the parks department the tools, authority and flexibility required to develop a new operating model.
California state parks have finalized 10 matching fund partnership agreements to keep 10 state parks open and operating for the next two years.
The agreements are made possible by the AB 1478 Match Program, which appropriated $10 million back to the department to be used for matching funds in donor and operating agreements, YubaNet.com reported.
“State Parks’ partners and supporters are our strongest allies, and we thank their commitment to helping us to continue to serve the people of California and parks visitors by providing them with the best experience possible,” said Major General Anthony L. Jackson, director of California state parks. “We are encouraged by the positive outcome of these negotiations, and with the collaborative efforts of all parties involved to support parks across the state.”
Through AB 1478, the parks that were on the original list for closure receive priority for matching funds. Director Jackson noted the plan to close the 70 parks is in the past, stating: “If a future budget situation should require a reduction plan, I assure all that we will develop a new plan in an open and transparent fashion. The 70-park closure plan is not our plan for moving forward.”
In addition, 10 more agreements are pending and could be finalized soon.
Officials at the California attorney general’s office have reversed course and begun a deeper examination of the accounting scandal at the state parks department that could result in criminal charges.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the renewed probe was disclosed Wednesday (Feb. 20) during a legislative hearing on state parks. Previously, the attorney general’s office had concurred with a decision by the Sacramento County district attorney not to pursue a criminal case, much to the chagrin of some lawmakers.
During the hearing, state Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) asked why officials of the Department of Parks and Recreation weren’t facing criminal charges for hiding millions of dollars from the governor’s office and the Legislature.
“Fraud is a crime,” she said.
Peter Southworth, a supervising attorney general, said, “My office is still reviewing the matter,” but would not comment further. He also would not say whether Ruth Coleman, the former parks director who was ousted when the hidden money was revealed last year, would be subpoenaed as part of the inquiry.
“The decision was made to undertake a more thorough review,” Lynda Gledhill, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said in a later statement.
The attorney general’s office released a report in January saying that some parks officials had deliberately hidden about $20 million of the $54 million surplus discovered in the department’s accounts. The rest was due to accounting discrepancies, the report said. However, Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully said the state’s review didn’t identify potential crimes or suspects.
A subsequent letter from Senior Assistant Attorney General Michael P. Farrell said state officials agreed with that decision.
“Nothing disclosed by any person … has prompted this office to commence a criminal investigation,” he wrote.
The central figure in one of the financial scandals that engulfed the California state parks department last year has agreed to pay a $7,000 civil penalty.
Manuel Thomas Lopez, 45, of Granite Bay, Calif., was deputy director of administrative services at the California Department of Parks and Recreation in 2011 when he authorized an illegal vacation buyout program for employees at the department’s headquarters in Sacramento, The Sacramento Bee reported.
The buyout, first exposed by The Sacramento Bee in July, cost the state more than $285,000 at the same time officials were slashing programs amid a budget crisis. A total of 59 parks employees benefited, including Lopez, who received the largest payout, totaling $28,646.
The state Fair Political Practices Commission undertook an enforcement action against Lopez for violating the Political Reform Act. The act forbids a public official from using his or her position for personal financial benefit.
In a settlement to be finalized at the commission’s Feb. 28 meeting, Lopez admits to two violations of the act – for receiving two vacation buyout payments in 2011 – and agrees to pay a $7,000 fine. That is less than the $10,000 maximum penalty, a commission staff report says, because Lopez cooperated with the investigation.
Lopez did not respond to a request for comment. He resigned from the department in May, just days before state officials planned to fire him.