In the fallout from the state parks funding scandal, the California Senate on Thursday (Aug. 30) approved a two-year moratorium on park closures and allocated $30 million in surplus funds to keep facilities operating, one-third of which would match private donations targeting specific parks.
According to a Los Angeles Times report, the bill was introduced after parks officials admitted in July that some agency employees had stashed away $54 million even as the agency was cutting services and threatening to close parks.
The scandal resulted in the resignation of the department’s director, the removal of other staff, and complaints from private groups that had been raising funds to keep their local parks from closing.
Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills) introduced the bill as “a concrete step to make things right.” The bill now goes back to the Assembly for final action.
In addition to funding parks that had been threatened with closure, AB 1478 provides $500,000 for audits and investigations of park finances, and $240,000 for the parks commission to exercise closer oversight over agency operations.
“Many of us feel betrayed by the parks scandal,” Blumenfield said. “For over a year, we were told that parks would close and Californians rallied to raise funds to keep them open. This accomplishment cannot be soiled by rogue bureaucrats who lied and concealed millions all along.’’
There may be a “silver lining” to the California state parks fund scandal, an advocate and fundraiser for the Palomar Mountain State Park said on Thursday (Aug. 23).
The North County Times reported that state lawmakers are considering using some of the $54 million in hidden state park funds uncovered last month to match private donations that flowed in for parks slated for closure last year, according to the advocate and a letter from the California State Parks Foundation.
The disclosure of the hidden park funds followed warnings from the state that 70 parks would be shuttered July 1 because of lack of money — a move that never took place.
The fund scandal led to the resignation of top parks officials last month.
“There could be a silver lining from all this,” said the advocate, Rick Barclay, chairman of the nonprofit Friends of Palomar Mountain State Park, referring to the possible use of some of the previously undisclosed money. “It’s good for Palomar.”
Barclay said lawmakers could approve Assembly Bill 1478 within the next week. If approved as written, that bill would designate $10 million for dollar-to-dollar matches for all contributions to parks that signed deals with the state for the 2012-13 fiscal year, according to the foundation’s letter.
Another $10 million would be directed to parks “that remain at risk of closure,” the letter said.
A lawmaker on Wednesday (Aug. 15) questioned whether the attorney general’s office is fit to investigate the state parks department, which is embroiled in numerous controversies.
During a Senate budget committee hearing, Sen. Bill Emmerson, R-Hemet, said lawmakers should consider an outside investigator, The Associated Press reported. His concern arose after it was revealed that lawyers for the attorney general’s office and parks department were made aware of hidden money months before top officials said they learned of it.
The attorney general’s office has not said what it did with that information. Spokeswoman Lynda Gledhill declined to give details because the investigation continues.
The governor’s finance director, Ana Matosantos, said administration officials acted quickly upon learning about the surplus in July.
“As soon as the agency and the governor learned of the circumstance, within 48 hours, that information was publicly reported,” Matosantos told lawmakers. “The broader issue about what exactly occurred at parks, who knew what at parks, when? This is all subject to investigation.”
Marc Le Forestier, director of legislative affairs for the attorney general’s office, said the investigation should be completed mid-October.
Democratic lawmakers said they plan to propose a moratorium on park closures for two years and want to give the Parks and Recreation Commission more oversight authority. But Emmerson said it would be difficult for lawmakers to craft legislation to address the department’s problem without knowing what happened.
“I’m concerned about the organizations that are supposed to be doing oversight having done so with the type of strong effort that they should have,” he said. “I’m concerned about the ability for us to get the kind of information we need.”
California lawmakers ordered an accelerated audit of the embattled parks department on Wednesday (Aug. 9), adding to a growing list of probes examining state finances in the wake of an accounting scandal.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the review, to be conducted by the state auditor, will examine a hidden $54-million surplus discovered in parks accounts last month and an unauthorized program allowing employees to trade in unused vacation time for more than $271,000 in cash.
“It’s a victory for transparency in state government,” said Assemblywoman Beth Gaines (R-Rocklin), part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who had pushed for the audit.
The parks money, which had been stashed away for at least a dozen years, was found as the state was soliciting donations to keep as many as 70 parks open amid a budget crisis. Some local governments that forked over money to keep parks open have demanded it back, and lawmakers are concerned that the accounting scandal will create a rift between the state and a community of parks supporters.
“This is a disaster for our efforts to build partnerships and create strategies to support our state parks,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael). “There’s only one way to fix it, and that is to act as quickly as possible to restore public trust and confidence.”
In the wake of a discovered $54 million surplus of state parks funds, the governor of California pledged Friday (Aug. 3) to work with the state Legislature to direct millions of dollars in state funds to keep parks open, fix serious park maintenance problems and match donor contributions, it was announced.
Gov. Jerry Brown also thanked all Californians who have contributed time and money to save state parks, the Murietta Patch reported.
“Much remains to be done to keep our parks open,” said Brown, in a news release. “The disclosure that the parks department had millions in additional revenues is mixed — it’s better to have more money than less, but it’s totally unacceptable for parks personnel to squirrel away public funds. I extend my deepest appreciation for the donors who have come to the aid of our parks in this time of need. I ask for their patience as we take all necessary steps to make sure this never happens again.”
Specifically, the news release stated, Brown called for the $20 million from the State Parks and Recreation Fund (SPRF) to be used to:
• Make critically needed maintenance fixes to keep parks from closing — for example, fixing water and waste treatment facilities that, if left as-is, will cause park closures.
• Establish a matching fund for contributions, so that donors know every dollar they give will go further.
The State Parks and Recreation Fund is one-time funding that can only be used for one-time costs, the news release stated.
The governor is also seeking a $10 million appropriation from Proposition 84 funds for immediate maintenance projects.
“We are grateful for our generous, committed donors. I can’t thank them enough,” said California Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird, in the news release. “The good news is we will have more to spend on parks this year. The bad news is the problem is much bigger than that. State parks will still have over $1 billion in deferred maintenance and ongoing costs.”
To ensure more sound and accountable financial reporting, the Department of Finance is requiring all departments to follow new procedures to reconcile and confirm balances between the Controller’s Office and the governor’s budget. In addition to implementing these new procedures, the Department of Finance’s Office of State Audits and Evaluations is conducting a thorough audit of all Parks fiscal actions, the news release stated.
Investigations into the parks funds are ongoing. On July 20, the California Natural Resources Agency announced that the parks department had not reported $20 million in the State Parks and Recreation Fund, and $34 million in the Off-Highway Vehicle Fund, to the Department of Finance, the governor’s office said.
The Attorney General launched an investigation at the request of Brown, who ordered a full parks department audit by the Department of Finance. The governor also accepted the resignation of then-Parks Director Ruth Coleman, appointed a new acting interim director and directed the dismissal of three senior parks employees, the governor’s office said.
Of the $54 million total, $20 million is eligible for appropriation by the Legislature for management, protection, planning and acquisition, the governor’s office said.
For months, the city of Benicia, Calif., has been working with the California state parks department on an agreement to keep the Benicia State Recreation Area open.
According to the Bay Citizen, San Francisco, the park was one of 70 parks around the state slated to close after the state cut $22 million from the parks department budget last year.
But two weeks ago, an investigation revealed the department has been sitting on a $54 million surplus for several years. The director of the agency, Ruth Coleman, quickly resigned, and its chief deputy director, Michael Harris, was fired. The agency’s chief counsel, Ann Malcolm, also left.
“Now, we don’t know who is going to sign (the agreement),” said Mario Giuliani, economic development manager for the city.
Across the state municipalities like Benicia and nonprofits like the Benicia State Parks Association, which are working to sign agreements with the parks department to keep parks open, don’t know what will happen to those efforts.
“Up in the air,” is how Bob Berman, board vice president of the Benicia State Parks Association, described the status of the Benicia agreements.
According to the state parks department, it has signed deals with nonprofits and government agencies to keep 42 parks open. However, it has not finalized agreements that would prevent more than 20 others from closing, including the two in Benicia.
State park officials said they hope to complete those deals.
“We are going to continue working with them in good faith for potential agreements,” said Roy Stearns, a spokesman for California state parks department.
Under its proposed agreement, Benicia had planned to pay the state $15,500 a year to keep water flowing to drinking fountains and a native plant garden, collect trash and maintain two portable toilets at the recreation area.
But now the city wants to make those payments in quarterly installments, hedging its bets in hopes of seeing some of the department’s budget surplus.
“We want to be in a position where we can recover some of that money,” said Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, acknowledging that it will take time for the state to determine how the surplus can be spent. “It does take a while to get some action from the legislature and the governor.”
In some cases, the proposed agreements would not restore all of the services the state has provided. In Benicia, the gates to the state recreation area’s parking lot would be closed, but walkers, runners and bicyclists would have access to the park.
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.
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The director of California’s state parks system resigned after officials discovered that her department had $54 million of unspent money in its accounts that it had not reported to the Department of Finance, even while the state said parks were so short of money that many needed to be closed.
The Associated Press reported that Ruth Coleman, who had led the agency since 2003, stepped down, and the department’s second-in-command, Acting Chief Deputy Director Michael Harris, was fired.
California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said the state Attorney General’s Office will be investigating and the Department of Finance will be conducting a comprehensive audit.
“It’s our goal to make sure we get to the bottom of this,” Laird said.
Laird said that the parks department had shielded from finance officials $20.4 million in an account that takes money from park entrance fees and concession contracts, as well as $33.5 million in a state fund for off-highway vehicle parks.
The disclosure comes at a politically difficult time for Gov. Jerry Brown, who pushed for more than a year to close 70 state parks — one quarter of the entire park system — to save $22 million as part of efforts to balance the state’s budget.
“This is deeply disappointing because we just went to many partners around the state to get them to step up and cover the shortfall,” Laird said. “I’m truly sorry about that.”
The parks had been scheduled to close on July 1. But they didn’t after dozens of private groups, cities and private companies came forward with donations.
When California’s Department of Parks and Recreation announced last year it would be closing a quarter of its parks due to budget cuts, millions of nature-loving Californians were devastated.
But, according to a report by the Huffington Post, there may be some relief ahead.
With the July 1 closure deadline looming, nearly half of the 70 parks originally slated to be shut down have been saved, and the state is in the process of negotiating agreements to keep nearly two-thirds open past that deadline.
The methods used to rescue the parks are varied, but they fall into a few distinct categories. Some received large donations from private individuals or conservation organizations, others were taken over by local municipalities or the federal government and a small handful, most controversially, are being privatized.
Though private companies (both of the non- and for-profit varieties) have long operated inside virtually all of California’s green spaces, having non-governmental groups handle the operation of an entire state park is relatively new. Last year, the legislature passed a bill allowing private organizations to take over the operation of California’s parks without first having to gain approval for each individual decision.
A recent report by the Legislative Analyst Office estimated that, by privatizing the operation of many parks, the state could save tens of millions of dollars each year.
Parks Department Deputy Director Roy Stearns admits that the idea has been met with some hostility. State Senator Noreen Evans, for example, said that park privatization is “inconsistent with serving the public.”
“We’ve gotten some pushback, but people are more and more coming to the realization that our budget has serious problems,” Stearns told The Huffington Post. “There are private companies in the Parks and Rec business that do it well. People shouldn’t see private enterprise as a dirty word. Our main goal is to get though these tough times.”
Other states have considered going the privatization route, but California is the first to actually implement it. Currently, the state is in final negotiations on private operation for six parks: Castle Crags, Benbow Lake, Woodson Bridge, Brannan Island, Turlock Lake and Limekiln.
A bipartisan group of state lawmakers gathered on Monday to push a new plan to save dozens of California parks slated for closure this year.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the lawmakers want to improve the collection of entrance fees and allow residents to buy special license plates to increase park funding. In addition, residents could use part of their tax refund to buy an annual pass.
“State parks are an essential part of our heritage,” Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) said during a news conference outside the Capitol.
If the law passes, the new money wouldn’t start flowing for up to a year — problematic because 70 parks were slated for closure this summer. But Huffman said he’s hopeful there will be a stopgap measure to keep them open.
Closing the parks could save $22 million in the upcoming fiscal year, according to Gov. Jerry Brown’s Department of Finance.
The plan is the second effort announced this month to provide life-saving funding for state parks. Sens. Joseph Simitian (D-Palo Alto) and Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) want to tap vehicle registration fees to maintain park roads and redirect other state funds to keep some parks open.
“This reflects a growing consensus that the closure of 70 state parks is fundamentally ill-conceived,” Simitian said in a statement. “The question now, of course, is how do we make it work?”
The parks were slated for closure when lawmakers approved the state budget last year. So far just Providence Mountain State Recreation Area near the Mojave Desert has shut down, and donors and the federal government have worked to prevent 16 from closing.