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.”
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
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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. “I have to take responsibility for it even though I didn’t know about it,” Coleman said. Chief Deputy Michael Harris was fired.
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 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.
“It saddens me to now know that all that money was sitting there, while we were faced with a reduction of our already part-time schedule of hours,” wrote Jeff Miller, a former Hearst Castle guide and Cambria resident in a Facebook post Monday. “And then hit with a reduction of our hourly wages for nearly three years. There were even some longtime employees that retired because they could make more money in retirement than being paid the reduced wages.”
Evelyn Dabritz, who turned 82 Wednesday, said she and her husband, David Dabritz, 83, have been state park docents for about 20 years each. She’s accumulated nearly 5,000 volunteer hours, and he has more than 5,000.
“We’re still committed to what we’re doing for parks,” she said, such as working with the public at the Museum of Natural History in Morro Bay State Park, Harmony Headlands State Park and Estero Bay State Park. “It’s disheartening … but it doesn’t change my determination to keep helping out as needed.”
David Dabritz said he’s not leaping to any conclusions, other than “part of the administration has let down the people, the professionals and the docents … we’ve lost a good director, and when non-state-park people get into administering parks, you’re dead.”
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 under-funding 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.”
Limekiln State Park was the closest park to the north of Cambria that was also on the closure list, but Franco said a contract with Parks Management Company of Templeton to run Limekiln takes effect Aug. 1. The Templeton firm already operates some forest-service campgrounds in the Big Sur Area.