Gov. Jerry Brown wants to use newfound California parks money to encourage more donations

08/04/2012 12:00 AM

08/21/2012 9:24 PM

Gov. Jerry Brown asked lawmakers Friday to spend $20 million in newfound parks money on repairs and a matching fund to solicit future donations rather than return money to donors who gave when they believed the system was broke.

The governor's announcement came as his Department of Finance determined that none of California's other 560-plus special funds contain hidden assets akin to what the state parks department tucked away, based on an audit compiled in the past two weeks.

The department, however, found multiple cases totaling $268.5 million in which departments made accounting errors showing either more or less money than the Finance Department knew about in 2011. The biggest error – a $113.3 million mistake in the state Beverage Container Recycling Fund – was corrected before lawmakers and Brown crafted the budget they enacted in June.

Department of Finance Director Ana Matosantos said those gaps were honest mistakes, in contrast to state Department of Parks and Recreation officials "deliberately" hiding assets for years.

"There are accounting differences ," Matosantos said, "but there are not other hidden asset-type circumstances in other departments."

Brown's administration revealed last month that the state Department of Parks and Recreation had cloaked nearly $54 million in two special fund accounts for more than a decade, following a Bee inquiry into accounting discrepancies. The discovery has threatened to undermine the governor's months-long narrative that parks are so desperate for cash that donations and additional taxes are needed to keep facilities open.

The governor previously threatened to close 70 of California's 278 state parks to save $22 million, but his administration relented in June following an outpouring of private support. In Sacramento, for instance, the Governor's Mansion remains open after Raley's donated 5 cents every time shoppers brought reusable bags and the Church of Scientology of Sacramento County kicked in $25,000.

In a statement Friday, Brown thanked donors and asked for their patience but said, "Much remains to be done to keep our parks open."

"It's better to have more money than less, but it's totally unacceptable for Parks personnel to squirrel away public funds," he added. "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."

Top parks officials, including longtime director Ruth Coleman, resigned after the hidden funds were discovered. The nearly $54 million was divided between two special funds: $20.4 million in the State Parks and Recreation Fund and $33.5 million in the Off-Highway Vehicle Fund. It remains unclear why parks officials hid the funds and exactly who knew about it, and Matosantos offered no further details Friday. The state attorney general's office is investigating and had no comment.

Pending legislative approval, Brown said he wants to use the $20.4 million in the State Parks and Recreation Fund for two purposes: maintenance that can keep parks in business, such as repairing water and waste treatment fixtures; and to create a fund that will match future contributions to parks.

Matosantos said Brown has no plans for the Off-Highway Vehicle Fund money, which will remain in its account. Off-highway users have long complained that California officials have violated state restrictions by tapping their funds for other purposes.

Reed Holderman, executive director of the Sempervirens Fund, a nonprofit conservation group, said he supports the governor's plan and is relieved the money will not be siphoned off for some other purpose.

"The fact they're putting it all toward parks is wonderful news," Holderman said.

But he noted that the parks system still has basic structural problems. The system lacks a dedicated revenue source to cover operating costs. And the maintenance backlog, estimated at $1.3 billion, is vast.

Some donors to state parks said the breach of trust will not be easily repaired. They included leaders in Ventura County, which contributed $50,000 to McGrath State Beach.

McGrath was not among the parks slated for closure due to budget cuts. But it likely would have closed anyway because the main sewer line at the park was so decayed that it posed a public health threat. State parks officials said they had no money for the $500,000 repair, so Ventura County Supervisor John Zaragoza helped launch a fundraising campaign and got the county to contribute $50,000.

The project was completed in June, with additional money coming from the city of Oxnard, numerous private donors, and some money from the state. After the "hidden assets" scandal came to light, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to demand that the state refund the $50,000 the county contributed toward the sewer line project.

Zaragoza said he still wants the $50,000 back.

"Right now, at this time, I don't trust Sacramento. I'm sorry to say that," he said. "I was blindsided on this thing. To now offer funds for matching donations how can I justify asking people for more money when this just happened?"

When the state moved to close parks last year, Alden Olmsted launched a grass-roots fundraising campaign to help keep them open. If every Californian donated just one dollar, he reasoned, that would be enough to save the parks. He has raised $40,000 so far, and donated more than half of it to 11 parks.

Olmsted called it a "slap in the face" when he learned that state parks had squirreled away $54 million. He said the state still has a lot of ground to make up to restore trust in those who wish to donate money to parks – and those who already have. But he supports Brown's new approach.

"Right now, everyone who was saying, 'Don't give the government money,' now they're saying, 'Aha, I told you so,' " said Olmsted, whose father helped establish two state parks. "But this seems like a good first move."

The audit focused on differences between the Finance Department's data and figures shown by the state controller's office for more than 560 special fund accounts, which are backed by revenue such as user fees and professional license charges.

Errors totaling $28.8 million were found in the state Restitution Fund, which collects court-mandated payments from people convicted of crimes. The money goes toward funeral costs and support services for crime victims and their survivors.

The fund has faced fiscal problems in recent years and paid out less to victims than desired as a result. Lawmakers last year raised the minimum fees required of those who commit crimes to help bolster it. Matosantos said her department is still researching how much of the $28.8 million can go toward additional victim aid.

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