State Parks Department Now Under Scrutiny

Byline: Taylor Hill

State Parks Department Now Under Scrutiny

SACRAMENTO — After the discovery of a $53 million hidden fund within the California Department of Parks and Recreation, Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered an audit and an investigation to determine the full extent of the department’s budget irregularities.

The audit and investigation comes following the resignation of Parks Director Ruth Coleman, whose department is accused of having underreported tens of millions of dollars over the last 12 years to the Department of Finance, resulting in unaccounted totals from the State Parks and Recreation Fund and the Off-Highway Vehicle Trust Fund of $20.4 million and $33.5 million, respectively.

Representatives of the boater advocacy group Recreational Boaters of California (RBOC) responded to news of the unreported Parks funds with criticism of the governor’s reorganization plan that calls for the self-supporting Department of Boating and Waterways (Cal Boating) to be transformed into a division of the Department of Parks and Recreation. Parks and Rec has historically required state General Fund dollars to meet its budget.

“These reports are of great concern,” said RBOC president Cleve Hardaker. “California’s boaters provide significant funding to state parks through park entrance fees as well as fuel tax dollars totaling close to $30 million per year. It is essential that boaters have confidence that the funds we pay the state are used wisely and effectively.”

The hidden funds were uncovered days after reports surfaced of secret Parks and Recreation Department vacation time buyouts totaling more than $271,000. Coleman resigned July 20, and chief deputy Michael Harris was let go amid questions about the underreported funds.

Gov. Brown has also directed the state Department of Finance to conduct a comprehensive audit of Parks’ fiscal controls, and directed California Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird to conduct a sweeping review of Parks’ management.

“We will get to the bottom of this situation and work with the attorney general, the Legislature and the Department of Finance to make sure nothing like this ever happens again,” Laird said. “We will also work with the Legislature to see how this money can be used to mitigate park closures.”

With nearly 70 California state parks on the brink of closure due to budgetary cuts, nonprofit groups that had been raising funds to keep the parks open were reportedly blindsided by the findings.

Their work to keep park gates open from Mendocino to San Diego past a July 1 closure deadline suddenly appeared meaningless when they heard about the department’s secret accounts holding more than $53 million.

“This has been an outrage for the public, and we feel outraged as well,” said Carolyn Schoff, president of the California League of Parks Associations, which has coordinated groups that raised millions of dollars trying to save threatened parks. “Even if this money gets returned, it’s not resolving the crisis — and now, the public trust has been betrayed.”

The Department of Parks and Recreation faced $22 million in budget cuts this year. However, the $53 million in hidden funds would cover more than two years of budget shortfalls, even if it would not assure the closure-targeted parks’ long-term funding.

Cal Boating, which is funded primarily through boater registration fees and boat fuel taxes, has an annual budget of $69 million, which will be included in the Parks and Recreation’s budget starting in Fiscal Year 2013, and government reorganization critics fear its funds could soon be allocated for non-boating related expenses.

Historically, Cal Boating has funded, planned and developed boating facilities on waterways throughout California, and it has worked to improve boating safety by providing financial aid and water-based training to local law enforcement agencies.

“We will remain engaged and vigilant on these fiscal issues over the course of the next 12 months, and additional action including legislation may be warranted,” Hardaker said.

The State Parks and Recreation Fund was established in 1979, with its revenue coming from fees, rentals and returns collected for the use of any state park system area. The fund can be used for resource management and protection, planning, acquisition and development projects.

The Off-Highway Vehicle Trust Fund was established in 1971, with its sources of revenue being off-highway vehicle registration fees, transfer fees, penalties, fines and forfeitures. It can only be used for acquisitions, development, construction, maintenance, administration and conservation of areas for the use of off-highway motor vehicles.

— Associated Press and The Log staff reports were used in this story.

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