Hidden California state parks funds tip of outrageous iceberg
What if all of that worry, fretting and emergency action taken last year to ensure that dozens of state parks remained open in light of threats of imminent funding cuts and subsequent closures by cash-strapped Sacramento lawmakers never needed to happen? Recently, state parks advocates and supporters expressed some happiness but also a lot of outrage at the revelation that the State Parks Department might have been concealing “hidden assets” totaling nearly $54 million.
The money accumulated over 12 years in two funds the department uses to collect revenue and pay for operations: $20.4 million in the Parks and Recreation Fund, and $33.5 million in the Off Highway Vehicle Trust Fund.
The revelation led to the resignation of State Parks Director Ruth Coleman and the firing of her second-in-command, Michael Harris late last month. State officials believe the parks department underreported the actual size of the funds inits its reporting to the state’s Department of Finance.
State officials did not directly say there was intention to keep the money secret, but they implied as much, terming the surplus “hidden assets.”
The money, advocates lamented, could have been enough to cover over $22 million in state-imposed budget cuts in 2011. In response to the cuts, the Parks Department opted to close 70 of the state’s 278 parks, an unprecedented act. Virtually every other park suffered at least hours and services cuts.
Many closures were avoided because numerous nonprofits and local governments put up their own money to take over parks or subsidize state operations.
At that same time, the Department of Finance and the state Attorney General’s office initiated an investigation into the matter, according to John Laird, Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the state Department of Parks and Recreation. Officials said they don’t yet know whether any laws were broken or if additional employees will be disciplined.
“It’s really disappointing,” Geoff McQuilkin, Mono Lake Committee Executive Director told The Sheet. “The people here worked really hard to keep the parks open, based on belief and faith in the budget numbers.” He added his relief that the discrepancies appear to be confined to the Sacramento level, and caught frontline State Parks employees as much by surprise as the Mono Lake Committee.
“The parks have needs, keeping them operating, paying for maintenance. I hope some of that found money goes into those programs,” he said. McQuilkin also added his hope that closed parks can be reopened with some of the found money. As to the parking fee solution that allowed Mono Lake Park to stay open, he said that was necessary at the time, and probably the way things are ultimately headed. “Still I wish the Parks Department had been more straightforward at the time.”
Apart from the fact that it probably would have made the discovery more palatable had the money been revealed and used during crisis management last year, McQuilkin said he couldn’t help but be curious how the department intended to spend it later on. “You mean no one was going to ask where it came from? That many millions of dollars is hard to hide once you start writing big checks against it.”
Coleman, the longest-serving director in the 150-year history of the parks department, said in her resignation letter she did not know about the surplus. Laird said it is not yet clear who is to blame for how the money accumulated.
Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Janelle Beland, an undersecretary at the Natural Resources Agency, to take over as acting parks director.
“It could not be more damaging to everything that we’re trying to do here – to the public faith and confidence in the work that we put in,” said Caryl Hart, Sonoma County Regional Parks Director, who helped coordinate local groups to rescue state parks targeted for closure in that region. Sonoma County park advocates, upon hearing of the report, immediately canceled a local sales tax ballot measure planned as a long-term funding solution for parks in the region.
Laird said Aaron Robertson, who replaced Manuel Lopez as deputy director of administrative services, discovered the hidden money. Coleman said in an interview with the Sacramento Bee she first learned about the surplus from Robertson in just the last few weeks. Its large size did not become clear until only recenlty, she added.
“I have to take responsibility for it even though I didn’t know about it. I’m accepting that responsibility,” said Coleman told the Bee. “I just don’t like all state parks staff being painted with this. They are extraordinary people and they deserve respect.”
Coleman then pointed the finger at Lopez for not informing her of the surplus during his five years as a budget official, and later as deputy director. “[Manuel] shouldn’t have kept it hidden. He was making a judgment call that was not his to make,” she charged.
The Department of Finance relies on state departments to self-report funds each year as a basis for building the governor’s January budget. Those figures are the foundation of the budget act that lawmakers and the governor ultimately pass months later.
The Controller’s Office pays state bills, but does not have a direct role in drafting budgets. Nonetheless, its own year-end cash reports repeatedly indicated that the parks department had tens of millions of dollars more than parks officials were reporting to the Department of Finance.
The controller’s numbers often differ from the Finance Department’s for legitimate reasons, according to Finance Chief Deputy Director Michael Cohen.
But when it came to the parks funds backed by visitor fees and off-highway vehicle enthusiasts, Cohen said the Finance Department did not compare its data against the controller’s numbers. He did not know why that was the case.
State lawmakers on both sides of the aisle both parties are already suspicious that similar multimillion-dollar discrepancies exist in other departments. On Tuesday, the LA Times broke a story that said California could have hundreds of millions of dollars more on hand than the governor and lawmakers have been aware of, with strange mismatches turning up in about two dozen state funds.
“We’ve clearly got to figure out what happened, why and how it was possible,” said Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto. “How can we be sure the problem doesn’t exist elsewhere in the same (parks) organization or in other state organizations?” Simitian expressed apprehensions that public trust in state government, already on shaky ground, would falter even further. “On a larger level, this is unfortunately one more thing that will lead too many folks to say they just don’t have any trust or confidence in public institutions.”
Laird said the Legislature eventually must decide how to spend the hidden money. He as well as Coleman and Hart said they hope it can be used to restore services at the state parks targeted for closure and other cutbacks.
“This is the worst violation of the public trust that one could imagine,” remarked Ted Jackson, former Parks Department Deputy Director of Operations. –Digital Clipping Service