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Editorial: Is Gibson Ranch deal beginning of end for parks?

It is hardly surprising that Sacramento County supervisors have agreed to pursue an ill-advised deal with developer Doug Ose over the future of Gibson Ranch. Supervisors have been making reckless financial decisions for years. On Tuesday, they added to their legacy.

The deal negotiated between Ose and interim County Executive Steve Szalay would allow Ose to take over Gibson Ranch, a 345-acre public park, and operate it for 10 years as a profit-making entity. Ose would pay $1 a year to take over this historic ranch. The county, in turn, would commit $500,000 over five years to upgrade facilities in this privatized park that Ose would control.

Szalay and Ose touted the deal as the best way to get Gibson Ranch reopened in a short period of time. They both claim it would save the county money in the long run, because the cost of mothballing Gibson Ranch is about $212,000 yearly.

While those arguments have some merit, Szalay and supervisors who voted for the deal – Roberta MacGlashan, Susan Peters, Don Nottoli and Jimmie Yee – utterly ignored the potential risks to the county. In particular, the deal, as now written, allows Ose to invest whatever amount of money he wants in profit-making businesses – ranging from a pet motel to an RV park. If the county wanted to end the agreement before 10 years, it would have to repay Ose for his investment costs and percentage of lost revenue. That could add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and possibly more.

To his credit, Supervisor Phil Serna, in his first meeting, was anything but a rubber stamp for Szalay and Ose. Serna raised questions about the county's exposure and recommended the board reopen its process for more proposals.

According to county Parks Director Janet Baker, several other entities have contacted the county about seeking to manage Gibson Ranch. Serna rightly noted that, as stewards of county assets, it would behoove supervisors to examine all the options before finalizing an exclusive deal with Ose.

Yet even though Serna's district includes Gibson Ranch, his fellow supervisors brushed off his concerns. They also effectively ignored representatives from Effie Yeaw Nature Center and Soil Born Farms, who have lease agreements to manage county property but have not been offered assistance – certainly not to the tune of $500,000 over five years – to deal with their deferred maintenance problems.

Although supervisors are unlikely to reverse their decision, it is not too late for them to shape the final deal with Ose.

The biggest question is Szalay's push for the county to invest $500,000 in the Ose-run Gibson Ranch over five years. County documents suggest that the ranch has unfunded deferred maintenance of only $290,000. Why the $500,000? And shouldn't there be a discussion of dedicating some of this funding to other park units in need of repairs?

Regardless of the final pact, the precedent set by Tuesday's decision should alarm parks advocates across the region. Instead of examining all options for keeping Gibson Ranch open, supervisors rushed into an exclusive agreement with a developer to turn this prized park into a commercial enterprise.

If the county's finances continue to go south, what is next? Will the county one day shutter the American River Parkway and lease it out to a developer?