State Parks violated our public trust

Outrageous doesn’t begin to describe the secret hoarding of a $54 million surplus by the state Department of Parks and Recreation. The funds remained untapped even as 70 parks — including a popular campground in Morro Bay — were slated for closure.

Almost all of those parks, including Morro Bay’s, have since gotten reprieves; partnerships have been forged with local government agencies and nonprofits that agreed to step in and help operate them for the time being.

But that happy ending’s been spoiled. The unreported surplus is an affront to every taxpayer. It’s especially egregious to those who donated money and volunteered time in good faith under the assumption that parks would otherwise have been shut down completely.

While $54 million wouldn’t have been nearly enough to assure the agency’s long-term financial stability of the department — especially because $33 million was earmarked for off-highway vehicle recreation — it was a cushion that would have allowed for a less frenzied transition of parks into other hands.

And it wasn’t just existing parks that were needlessly threatened. Plans to acquire new parkland, including Wild Cherry Canyon near Avila Beach, were called into question as well.

The state used the ongoing fiscal crisis to justify seeking a $1 million endowment to cover maintenance and operational costs for Wild Cherry Canyon. That’s added yet another hurdle for conservationists who have been working for years to acquire the 2,400 acres of coastal property as an extension of Montaña de Oro State Park.

We strongly urge State Parks to eliminate that requirement.

That’s only fair, because the department has made it much more difficult to convince potential donors that State Parks projects are deserving of their support.

The backlash is already apparent; in Sonoma County, for example, a sales tax measure that would have benefited parks throughout the region will not appear on the November ballot.

And fallout over this incident could affect far more than the parks department. Opponents of the governor’s proposed sales tax increase for education are using this scandal to bolster their contention that government cannot be trusted with more tax dollars.

Indeed, if this can happen to one agency — reportedly without the knowledge of its top official — it’s logical to question whether the same thing has been occurring in others.

The governor’s budget office plans to review all dedicated funds to make sure this is not a widespread practice.

That’s a start, but it will take much more to win back the goodwill of the public — beginning with a full accounting of how this occurred and the steps that will be taken to ensure it never happens again.

Editorials are the opinion of The Tribune.