Editorial: State parks debacle needs full investigation

Published: Tuesday, Jul. 24, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 8A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:13 pm

Californians are rightly outraged by revelations that the state Department of Parks and Recreation has quietly hoarded more than $53 million in two special funds that could have saved parks from the chopping block. They also should be outraged if they don't get a full accounting of how it happened.

As reporting by The Bee's Matt Weiser revealed, some $20.4 million has accumulated in the Parks and Recreation Fund and $33.5 million has piled up in the Off Highway Vehicle Trust Fund over the last 12 years. This money has grown even as governors made plans to close scores of state parks – prompting community groups and volunteers to engage in unprecedented fundraising efforts to save parks.

Now they learn that the parks department had money all along that could have saved some, if not all, of their treasured open spaces.

"This has so many layers of destruction," said Caryl Hart, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks. On Friday, county activists canceled a local sales tax measure designed to serve as a long-term funding source for the region's parks.

Clearly, this breach of faith threatens to discredit the parks department and overshadow the challenges it still faces. Only a full examination of who was responsible will turn that around, along with systemic changes in the parks department.

Ruth Coleman, who has headed state parks for a decade, resigned after her boss, Natural Resources Secretary John Laird, learned about the hidden funds, as she should have done. Coleman insists she didn't know about the fund balances, and it's hard to imagine she would have worked so tirelessly with community groups to keep parks open if she knew that she had millions of dollars squirreled away.

Even so, Coleman should have known about these funds, and clearly shouldn't have put so much trust in underlings who apparently were less than forthcoming about them. Why is it that the head of a major state department didn't receive detailed, yearly reports of fund balances and didn't insist upon them?

Our guess is the problem extends beyond just one department. California has scores of special funds – places where your money goes when you pay DMV fees or pay for a campground site. All these funds are tracked by the controller's office, but not regularly examined by the Department of Finance in setting budgets. The Finance Department reconciles general fund spending with numbers from the controller's office, but doesn't regularly do the same for special fund money.

The Department of Finance says it has launched a study of all these special funds, which is a good start. But a full audit of these special funds, or at least a cross section of them, is badly needed.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers shouldn't immediately assume that a pot of gold has been discovered in the Parks and Recreation Fund, which, unlike the OHV account, is not a protected trust fund. Some might be tempted to raid this money to pay for pet projects that have no connection with parks.

Advocates will need to be vigilant to prevent this. That money came from parks users who paid fees – which is defined as the price one pays as remuneration of services. If lawmakers seek to raid those funds, they will be stealing from the users of state parks and possibly could be breaking the law.

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