Sacramento County parks director Janet Baker stood up before a standing-room-only meeting of the Board of Supervisors in May.
"This is an incredibly difficult time for parks," she said. "The reality is the current model is not sustainable."
She's right. With each boom and bust of the economy, parks in Sacramento County and other jurisdictions continue their slow slide. Maintenance is deferred. Patrols are reduced. The city of Sacramento falls behind on its parks goals.
Worst of all, the county is making plans to transfer operations of Gibson Ranch, a multiuse recreation area and nature preserve, to an outside group, perhaps even to a for-profit private developer. This transfer comes as the county plans to zero out parks from its general fund budget, while raising fees on "users" – i.e., the public. Fees have been increasing over time, and currently provide 41 percent of the county's overall regional parks budget.
People who care about these public assets can no longer watch from the sidelines. For parks in Sacramento County and the rest of the region to stay open and get the care they deserve, supporters of individual far-flung parks must band together in a broader coalition, and do so quickly.
This coalition can't just consist of parks volunteers and advocates who've been active on these issues for decades. It needs business leaders who recognize that having wildlands and fabulous outdoor recreation can set Sacramento County apart and be a jobs magnet. It needs philanthropists. Many of our most cherished parks were established a century ago by forward-looking donors and business interests. It needs a new and younger generation of civic-minded parks advocates who want to build and support a lasting legacy.
Lastly, this broad-based crusade needs political leaders who are willing to provide a broad, sound financial base for the operations and maintenance of existing parks.
We know these leaders are out there and interested. The question is: Are they willing to stand up and be counted?
One sign of hope is the ongoing Grass Roots Working Group, made up of 13 organizations (plus an advisory committee of 17 members). This group has been meeting to identify options for securing "adequate, stable, long-term funding" for Sacramento County's regional park system.
The aim is to put a measure on the November 2012 ballot.
With help from the Trust for Public Land, this group is evaluating four alternatives for long-term county parks management. These include an independent regional parks entity with a secure source of funding – similar to the East Bay Regional Park District, which has grown to include several counties. Other options include a more dependent county parks district, accountable to the Board of Supervisors, a new community services district or a parks conservancy, run by a nonprofit.
The working group expects to come up with a recommendation by the end of January, with a community summit in early February.
All these options are worthy of further study. But this crusade can't happen in a vacuum. Inside California Forum, we've listed groups that can make a difference. We urge you to contact them and get as active as Ted Robinson, a county parks commissioner.
Robinson, 91, recounts why he has devoted so many hours to parks over the years.
"I grew up in appalling poverty in New York City," he said. "Even during the Depression, the city kept the parks and police going. I never forgot that. I played in those parks."
He recalls vowing, "If I ever amounted to anything, I would fight for parks."
He has. He will. How about you?