Scores of state parks — including local landmarks Railtown 1897, Columbia and Big Trees — have labored over the past two years under budget cuts and the threat of closure due to California’s overspending.
Then, last week, came a big revelation: The State Parks Department is sitting on $54 million in untapped funds — more than double the amount cut from the department in last year’s budget.
That would seem like good news. Gov. Jerry Brown spun it as such Wednesday, quipping at a news conference, “Hallelujah. More money is better than less money.”
But just the opposite is true.
The money was squirreled away in a pair of accounts — $20.4 million in a reserve fund and $33.5 million in fees collected from off-highway vehicle users. Its existence was revealed following a newspaper investigation concerning $271,000 in unauthorized vacation buyouts for Parks Department employees.
Embarrassed and disgraced, the Parks Department Director Ruth Coleman resigned and her deputy Michael Harris was fired.
The scandal’s implications, however, are far broader and deeper than the money involved.
It first begs the question of what other cash is squirreled away in various hidden accounts, unbeknownst to our government leaders, lawmakers sand bean counters. Heck — the State Parks Department accounts for less than 1 percent of the state’s annual spending. Most goes to schools, prisons, pensions and health care.
A broader accounting is needed.
As for the 150 year old State Parks Department, the scandal’s implications are deeper.
That hidden $54 million, at this point, can apparently be appropriated by the state for any reason and so would be lost to State Parks funding.
More critically, the department has damaged its credibility with its base of support — the public that values open spaces, recreation and the preservation of historical landmarks. And this bungled $54 million accounting mistake further erodes Californians’ confidence in the general competence, transparency and honesty of state government.
When Railtown was on the chopping block earlier this month, community members in Tuolumne County rallied around a host of efforts to save the park — an expanded visitor-lodging tax that failed at the polls in June (Measure C) and private fundraising efforts that generated tens of thousands of dollars to keep operations going.
The generosity and public-spirited role of the Sonora Area Foundation in providing a $75,000 matching grant to help save Railtown was an important and welcome donation. Yet how frustrating and annoying it must be to the SAF board to make this kind of sizable gift — while $54 million in state park funds lay hidden away, unused and unreported.
In addition to the SAF, the coordination, energy and ticket-selling effort by five local Rotary clubs to raise $75,000 in matching funds — and the wonderful support from local residents in buying those tickets or making outright personal donations was a terrific show of public support for Railtown.
Most all of them must feel betrayed by the bureaucrats in Sacramento. And they are rightfully angry.
This same scenario played out in other communities statewide as well.
Coleman, Harris and possibly others in the department shouldn’t get off so easy.
The Attorney General and Finance Department are investigating. The Legislature should do likewise.
Any possible criminal or civil wrongdoing should be prosecuted vigorously.
The next action that Gov. Brown should undertake is to restore the $54 million back to the State Parks operating fund. Beyond that, the legislature should “fast-track” a proposed law — that has bi-partisan support — to allow taxpayers to deduct the cost of state park passes from their state income tax and offer state commemorative license plates for sale. All of these new funds would be used for park maintenance and operations.
The State of California can salvage the wreckage of this scandal by restoring all 270 parks to a solid financial footing.