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Editorial: Future of county parks on the line

With a high-water year and the warm-weather season approaching, the American and Sacramento rivers beckon. This year, the Sacramento County regional parks department has volunteers to hand out life jackets to swimmers and rafters.

But in another sign of the slow decline of the regional park system, the county has no funds to buy vests.

For the last several years, this joint "Kids Don't Float" program of the county's regional parks and emergency medical services departments stocked nine stations twice a week for the 20-week peak season with free life jackets. For $10,800, the county could provide 2,160 vests, a worthwhile investment to prevent drownings.

The funding decline for parks has been precipitous. In 2001, the regional parks system received a general fund allocation of $6.4 million. A decade later, that has fallen to $2.9 million.

The park "system" has been reduced to a skeleton staff of rangers and maintenance workers.

That showed this winter in a big way with illegal camping in the American River Parkway. There's no routine ranger patrolling at Gibson Ranch, the Delta sites and other regional park facilities. This summer expect less enforcement of alcohol laws, cleaning of restrooms, repair of shade shelters and picnic tables. Expect more vandalism, illegal dumping, loitering, fires.

Sadly, there's little sign of the functions and amenities people should expect in a thriving park system – interpretation and education on the cultural and natural history of the county, resource conservation and restoration, development of parks for the population growth of the future.

The "system" also has become increasingly fragmented, with myriad nonprofit groups running isolated park units (and, now, even a for-profit business running Gibson Ranch), with few resources devoted to connecting the pieces in an integrated, coherent whole.

And it's about to get worse. The regional parks department has been given a $2.527 million preliminary allocation with which to prepare a 2011-2012 budget. The county expects to release a preliminary budget recommendation on May 13.

This is where the public comes in.

There is some reason for hope. A Feb. 7-13 telephone survey of likely Sacramento County voters, conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates, found deep support for the county's parks and parkways.

Asked to rate "How important would you say the county's regional parks are to the quality of life in Sacramento County?", 62 percent responded "extremely" or "very" important. Half say they visit regional parks several times each month, and 79 percent say they visit several times a year.

Presented with a hypothetical ballot measure for a 10-year 1/8 cent sales tax to fund regional parks, 73 percent said they would vote "yes." The idea got support from more than 60 percent of voters in each of the five supervisor districts.

But there's a big disconnect between the public's views and actual financial commitment to regional parks by the Board of Supervisors. Always a small portion of the budget, parks have dropped well below a 1 percent share of general fund spending.

It's not just kids who need life preservers; the park system itself needs a lifeline. The public will have to step forward to get supervisors to pull, not slacken, in making a commitment to parks.