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Editorial: Strapped Sacramento County squanders its inheritance

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Helmets on, water bottles in place, Ron Zevalkink and his 5-year-old grandson Barry ride their mountain bikes onto Gibson Ranch Road and approach a gate artfully designed with silhouettes of four horses.

On this particular Thursday, grandson and grandfather are looking forward to spending a morning at Gibson Ranch Regional Park, a 345-acre oasis amid the growing suburbs of northeastern Sacramento County. Yet as Zevalkink and his son approach the gate, they encounter one of the sad legacies of Sacramento County's relentless cost cutting of the past several years.

"Attention," a sign reads. "Gibson Ranch will be CLOSED Monday-Thursday." After next Sunday, the park will be entirely closed, seven days a week.

Sacramento County hasn't run out of money. Yet in terms of managing its regional parks system, the county is morally broke. Elected officials and county taxpayers have failed to be stewards of a crucial asset – our regional parks system – inherited from previous generations. And unless residents and community leaders speak with a clear voice about the value of parks and open space, the condition of our county park system will only worsen.

Consider the current trend: Gibson Ranch will shutter next Monday as supervisors consider proposals to lease it to outside groups, including a private developer who hopes to make money off the park. Unable to find funds for the Effie Yeaw Nature Center in the American River Parkway, the county turned it over to the American River Natural History Association earlier this year.

Along the American River Parkway, cuts to patrols and maintenance have left visitors less safe and bathrooms less sanitary.

Several other county assets have been effectively turned over to outside entities. The Cherry Island Soccer Complex is leased to the California Youth Soccer Association. The Gene Andal Park is leased to the Sacramento Air Modelers. Deer Creek Hills Preserve is managed by the Sacramento Valley Conservancy. The list goes on and on.

In the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, other local governments have chosen to sacrifice parks to protect other priorities.

They are easy to cut. Sacramento County doesn't face state mandates to finance parks at a minimum level, as it does for some social services. At the same time, parks advocates lack the political clout of law enforcement unions and other public employees, who can threaten a politician's re-election chances.

"Parks are always at the bottom of the list," says county Supervisor Roger Dickinson, whose district includes Gibson Ranch.

Supervisors fail to reach out

Dickinson is right. In a recession, parks are an obvious target for supervisors needing to reduce spending. Yet even before the current downturn, the county was turning its back on its open-space assets. In 2001, the county spent a modest $5.44 per resident on parks from its general fund. Last year, that figure dropped to a paltry $1.33 per person. Overall general funding for parks has dropped from $6.2 million to $1.9 million during that time.

And that is the most shocking aspect of the county's slow, incremental shift toward abandoning its regional parks. If you were to ask nearly any county resident how much they'd be willing to pay yearly to keep parks open, most would likely be willing to hand over $5, maybe even $10.

Yet Sacramento County supervisors haven't even asked that question. Elected to represent the county's 1.4 million people, they haven't taken the time to collectively and personally ask residents: How much would you be willing to spend to keep parks open and healthy?

Many parks advocates credit the county's regional parks staff for making the most of tough times. Yet many are fed up with the Band-Aid approaches. They and others agree: The time is long overdue to get parks out of the county's general fund, with some form of stable financing.

"I've sat through years and years of budget hearings and parks is always last to testify and last to get funding," said Charlea Moore, an avid horsewoman and parks advocate. "It just doesn't work and hasn't worked for years, as is seen in the continuing deterioration of all the parks and the parks programs and services."

Gibson Ranch, then and now

To fully appreciate what the county is sacrificing, consider how Gibson Ranch became a jewel in the county's once ambitious effort to create a regional parks network.

Part of California's historic Rancho del Paso Mexican land grant, the area was homesteaded in the 1870s and purchased by R.H. Gibson in the 1930s to raise quarter horses.

After Sacramento County established a county regional park system in 1959, the ranch was one of the first land acquisitions in 1962 – intended as a park anchor for the growing northern part of the county.

Here's how the county described Gibson Ranch Regional Park in its heyday: "This 345-acre park bristles with as many activities as an old-fashioned ranch. Like the ranches of old, this park also boasts a swimming hole, equestrian center, stocked fishing lake and preserved natural areas. Unlike old-fashioned ranches, however, this park also contains reservable overnight facilities for up to 64 people, and group picnic sites for up to 400." That was in the 1980s.

And now:

The swimming hole, which had won an architectural "award of honor" in 1980, has been closed since the early 1990s. The swimming and beach area today is a fenced-off dry pit full of weeds; the bathhouse with showers and changing rooms is boarded up.

Overnight facilities? The eight bunkhouses, used by Scouts and other groups, closed a decade ago.

Rather than being renovated or restored, the original historic Gibson residence was torn down in the 1970s, replaced by today's ranch house – which itself has been closed for 17 years, a large beehive in the outside rafters deterring even curious visitors.

The historic blacksmith and carriage shop buildings, which could be used for demonstrations of historic skills, stand closed.

The quarter-mile horse track, removed long ago, is an empty field.

What happened?

Although it is supported by horse enthusiasts from all over, Gibson Ranch never established a broad constituency with clout. The park closes next Monday , but this is hardly the first time it has confronted that threat. The park faced closure in 1992, 1993, 1997, 2001 and 2004. It has been temporarily closed, most recently from November to March.

If Gibson Ranch were on the edge of Carmichael or Land Park, this abandonment would be unacceptable. But communities near the park – Elverta, Antelope, Rio Linda and North Highlands – are neither wealthy nor politically powerful. According to U.S. census data, these four areas had a median household income of $57,278 annually in 2008.

Families in this region need playgrounds, picnic areas and recreation that brings them together around healthy, wholesome activities. But who speaks for them?

The repeated closures of Gibson Ranch suggest an answer. Far too few county residents realize what is being lost.

Park open only to some

On a recent Thursday morning, Zevalkink and his grandson are undeterred by the closed gate at Gibson Ranch. They wait and wait. Finally, a car pulls up to a 3½-foot post with a grey key pad. The driver punches some numbers and the gate swings open.

The park, although closed to the general public, is open for 60 families who board horses at the park's equestrian center. The private concessionaire who has run the center for the last 18 years also comes out to open the gate for those taking horse-riding classes. On this morning, about a dozen kids on horses follow the instructions of their teacher. Grandfather and grandson follow the car in before the gate closes. They then take a surreptitious ride through the park before repeating the wait-and-follow routine to get out.

When it is open, Gibson Ranch Regional Park still provides quality of life in the community – movie nights, family gatherings, large concerts, fishing clinics. Civil War buffs stage battle re-enactments. Yet those are the rare moments.

Every time the automatic gate at Gibson Ranch Regional Park swings open and swings shut, the message is sent. This park is not open to the general public, but open only to some people.

System increasingly fragmented

For too many years, the county essentially has been in "give up" mode, handing over regional park operations through lease arrangements, presiding over an increasingly fragmented regional parks system.

Groups such as the California Youth Soccer Association; the Galt Area Historical Society; the Sacramento Valley Conservancy; the Rio Linda-Elverta Historical Society; the Sacramento Air Modelers; and Project Ride, which provides a therapeutic horseback program, have all stepped in to keep parks open.

These partnerships provide a valuable service to the public for a particular park unit, but they cannot implement a larger vision of a regional parks system. With each park unit's lease to an outside group, the regional parks system loses its identity.

There's even a chance the county will lease Gibson Ranch to a private developer who has expressed interest. Frustrated by the county's dithering, developer and former Congressman Doug Ose is pushing to take control of Gibson Ranch and turn it into a profit-making entity.

While most park systems contract out for support services – such as camping and lodging, food and drink, supplies and equipment rental – counties in California and across the nation have not turned whole park units over to for-profit firms. What the county is mulling is unprecedented.

The county's long-term handoff strategy forces county residents to decide: Will they sit by while their parks inheritance is outsourced? Or are they willing to be bolder?

County supervisors have begun to explore options for getting parks off the county's general fund. These range from a regional parks district, like the one in the East Bay, to a special parks tax. The aim is to get something on the ballot in June 2012.

Sacramento once had grand dreams about its parks. It is not too late to think big.

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