Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Mary Golden of the Central Coast State Parks Association as saying State Parks has $1.3 million in deferred maintenance; she said $1.3 billion. The story also used the old name for the association, Central Coast Natural History Association, which it changed in 2011.
In light of the discovery of nearly $54 million of secret State Parks money at a time when many parks were being eyed for closure, a Central Coast legislator said a review is needed to see whether there are any other hidden assets.
State Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, said the situation is “sad, very disappointing.”
As a member of the Little Hoover Commission for governmental oversight, he said, “We were looking at how we’ll keep parks open, which ones we should close and all the frustration that comes with the economy ... then to hear there’s $54 million available. It’s sickening ... it takes the trust away.”
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A new fiscal employee in State Parks found $54 million in “hidden assets,” or unspent, underreported funds, at a time when the department was slashing staffing levels and services, begging for donations and volunteer assistance and threatening to close as many as 70 parks.
Setting dedicated funds aside is one thing, but hiding funds is something else entirely, Achadjian said. “To hide it, there’s no excuse.”
“Transparency is the name of the game,” he said, adding that he hopes “we’ve learned a lesson and will find out how much more money is hidden away” in other departments. “Whatever it is, we have to make it public.”
News of the unbudgeted money was only one recent development rocking State Parks and the people it serves. Among others:
A secret vacation buyout program allegedly paid dozens of employees for their unused vacation time, at an estimated cost of $271,000.
After of the discovery of the funds, Ruth Coleman, the department’s director under three governors, resigned Friday. Chief Deputy Michael Harris was fired.
The whole thing’s not a bad plot for a novel, but the shake-up in Sacramento is true, and State Parks employees, partners and volunteers say they feel betrayed, hurt and confused.
Kara Blakeslee reacted with disbelief. She’s been working for years on lining up funding to preserve the Wild Cherry Canyon area south of San Luis Obispo for public open space.
“Hey State Parks! Got an extra $54 million?” Blakeslee wrote on her Facebook page. “Well, then, two questions. First, why are you asking this community to scrimp and save for a $1 million management endowment for Wild Cherry Canyon? Second, how about allocating a small fraction of that to close the project, open up 4,000 new coastal acres for conservation, and add 20 miles to the California Coastal Trail?!”
Blakeslee and her husband, state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, were on vacation Monday and could not be reached.
Morro Strand State Beach was one of the parks being considered for closure until the Central Coast State Parks Association proposed taking over management to save the state that cost.
Negotiations with the association are now “on hold until I find out what’s happening with all this,” said Nick Franco, superintendent of the San Luis Obispo Coast District of State Parks. “We’ll keep talking with folks (at the association), but we don’t plan to move forward until all the dust settles.”
Franco’s not allowed to talk about the Sacramento situation and said all inquiries were to be handled by the department’s communications director, Roy Stearns. Calls to Stearns Monday were not returned.
In a memo sent to employees Sunday, Franco said the payout of vacation balances “while we were constantly reducing staff, reducing budgets and eliminating overtime in the field upsets me as though I’ve been betrayed by a close family member.”
In the memo, Franco also said, “The push to close parks seems to me to be not much more than an effort to energize nonprofit partners and the public into accepting the idea of privatization of parks and mobilizing them to do just that without realizing they are undermining the whole purpose of public parks.”
Mary Golden, the Central Coast association’s executive director, said the news from Sacramento was “very unexpected and shocking ... we were blindsided. ... But we completely support our local State Parks staff. We think they’re wonderful, and they do an incredibly good job.”
Even if the $54 million eventually is spent on parks, “it won’t solve the underfunding of parks in the long-term,” Golden said. Parks have $1.3 billion in deferred maintenance, she said, and “our parks are literally coming down around our ears.”