By Aaron Blevins, 7/26/2012
Money is found after cuts are made and facilities are closed
Less than a month after various groups and organizations rallied and raised money to save 70 state parks from closure, an audit has revealed that the California Department of Recreation and Parks has almost $54 million in hidden, unreported funds.
According to the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA), which oversees the parks department, a preliminary investigation into the department’s finances showed that officials had been underreporting tens of millions of dollars since at least 2000.
Since the audit, parks director Ruth Coleman has resigned, though she states in her resignation letter that she was unaware of the excessive balance. Her acting chief deputy, Michael Harris, has been fired.
“It’s a depressing and stunning revelation,” said Jerry Emory, of the California State Parks Foundation. “We just hope the situation gets corrected.”
The foundation was one of the groups fighting to keep the parks open, and it offered grants to nonprofits rallying to keep parks in their areas open. While the money found in the audit should benefit some of the parks, it won’t solve the department’s financial woes, Emory said.
“So the crisis remains on the ground for state parks,” he said. “[The fundraising effort] was totally worth it, and we’re continuing on.”
Of the $54 million, the department’s State Parks and Recreation Fund held more than $20 million, while its Off Highway Vehicle Fund held almost $33.5 million, according to a CNRA press release. Emory said the $20 million should be used toward the parks, which will be helpful.
“It’ll be a big shot in the arm,” he added.
Melissa Baffa, of Friends of Channel Coast State Parks, said she hopes that the funding will be used in state parks and not for other purposes. Her group had rallied to reopen McGrath State Beach.
The state beach reopened at the beginning of July after having been closed since October — three months longer than usual due to a deteriorating sewer line. Friends of Channel Coast State Parks raised $500,000 to fix the line.
“That part of it is frustrating,” Baffa said of the underreported funds.
She said the $20 million came from revenue generated at kiosks and through rentals and fees. Therefore, it should be earmarked for the park system, Baffa said.
While learning of the department’s balance after working diligently to raise money was frustrating, she said it is good that the community organized around the state beach. The budget issues are not going away any time soon, and “Save McGrath” organizers garnered partnerships that will be “key in moving forward,” Baffa said.
“It makes us that much richer,” she added.
Emory agreed. He said the agreements reached to save most of the parks from closure are temporary — most are for one year. Emory hopes to receive updates as the state government decides how to handle the funding.
“We’re more disappointed than anything else,” he said.
Emory stressed that the funding donated to the foundation are safe. He said the organization has a four-star charity rating and has full access to the donations.
“We just hope this gets fixed in Sacramento,” Emory said.
At the state capitol, Assembly Speaker John Peréz (D-Los Angeles) and Assembly budget chair Bob Blumenfield (D-San Fernando Valley) vowed to investigate how officials were able to hoard $54 million during “the worst fiscal crisis in generations.”
“The people of California are entitled to know exactly how this situation has been allowed to fester,” the legislators said in a statement. “The governor has acted swiftly and appropriately to remove officials who have either participated in, or allowed, these transgressions to occur. We are determined to get to the bottom of these deeply troubling questions, and to that end, the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Oversight has begun the process of preparing oversight hearings, which will be held at the beginning of August. Not only will the hearings get to the bottom of the $54 million hidden parks funds, but will also review how all funds are monitored to ensure this remains an isolated incident and that the Legislature and the public are not kept in the dark.”