After intense efforts by dozens of local residents to save in Chatsworth from being closed because of the state’s budget crisis, there may be good news in the form of a one-time infusion of cash from the state.
Late last month, an audit found about $54 million in two special funds that the state Department of Parks and Recreation had collected over 12 years but had not fully reported. The director of state parks resigned and a top parks deputy was fired. The secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees state parks, referred to the funds as “hidden assets.”
There is no guarantee that the money will stay within the parks system, but State Sen. Fran Pavley said virtually 100 percent of the legislature wants to keep it there rather than allowing it to go for other state expenses. The money came from fees paid by park users.
One suggestion for the unexpected money is to that have been made by individuals, businesses and organizations that stepped in to keep parks open.
About $34 million was from the Off Highway Vehicle Trust Fund and is restricted for use in the eight state parks that allow off-roaders because the fees were paid by people who bought or use those special vehicles. The rest of the money is from the Parks and Recreation Fund, which collects money from park visitors for parking, camping and other user fees.
The state had of the state’s 279 parks to save about $22 million. Several parks, including Santa Susana and Los Encinos State Historic Park in Encino, have been temporarily saved by volunteers and donors. The Foundation for the Preservation of the Santa Susana Mountains has trained about 80 docents to keep the park open, in addition to receiving monetary contributions. The biggest boost for from one Valley family to save the park known for its ducks.
In the aftermath of the audit, some donors across the state have asked to have their money returned, Pavley said. The anonymous Tarzana family that gave to Los Encinos stands by its donation, she said.
Sen. Pavley said the “found” money was underreported but it does not appear that there was any illegal intent. However, it creates a “loss of public trust,” she told her Valley Advisory Council at a recent quarterly meeting. The council includes community leaders from throughout her district, which includes parts of Chatsworth, and neighborhoods from Agoura, Calabasas and Woodland Hills to Studio City.
The Democratic senator said that said she would participate in discussions about how the money was overlooked and how it should be used. She noted that since this would be a one-time boost, “the problem doesn’t go away July 1” when the new fiscal year begins.
Sara Feldman, vice president of programs for the California State Parks Foundation (CSPF), told the advisory council that the state has decreased parks funding by 33 percent over the past decade. She said there is a $1.3 billion deficit in maintenance needs at state parks.
In a letter to the governor and the leaders of the state Senate and Assembly, the foundation wrote, “An erosion of the public’s confidence in our state park system is heartbreaking. There are few other symbols in California of our state’s greatness, our collective history, and our very identity as the Golden State.”
The non-profit foundation, which was established in 1969 to protect, enhance and advocate for state parks, contributed $875,000 to keep parks open, including $21,000 for Santa Susana that ensured it could stay open through the current fiscal year. CSPF receives no state money.
Feldman said CSPF is asking that the “found” money be used to keep parks open and find recurring revenues so there will be future funding available. It also suggests increased citizen oversight and training to enhance expertise and effectiveness of state parks commissioners.
CSPF has been working to save parks since former-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed closing some in January 2008. After a public outcry, the plan was scrapped.
The CSPF letter says, “Following the budget decisions last spring that enacted a significant, permanent cut to the park system’s General Fund, and the resulting announcement in May 2011 of the 70 specific state parks that would close, we more than redoubled our efforts to activate Californians to speak up for their parks.”
Disclosure of the “found” money “has damaged the public’s confidence and undermined the urgency and necessity that we and park partners across the state so clearly and vehemently articulated,” the July 25 letter says.
According to an article in the July 21 Sacramento Bee, Ted Jackson, a retired park ranger and former deputy director of operations at the department, said the surplus funds could have served as a safety valve to keep parks open while the state's economy recovered.
"The department has been going around telling people we had to close parks, and it comes to light we had been sitting on this kind of money," Jackson told the Bee. "It's devastating for the department and it's devastating for state government. This is the worst violation of the public trust that one could imagine."
Feldman said the foundation holds a Park Advocacy Day each spring in Sacramento. Many state legislators take parks for granted, she said, “they’re just there.”
California has the largest state park system in the country, Feldman said, including Hearst Castle, many beaches and many cultural and historic sites.
She said the money should be spent at the parks because it came directly from park users.
Feldman said money flowing into parks through various fees is never enough to pay for the whole system. It’s “not meant to be Raging Waters,” it’s a public benefit to have state parks. There “always has to be a public component” to pay for parks. The parks department is “drastically understaffed” with rangers and equipment spread over many parks, she said.
Feldman said the legislature and foundation had no input into which parks were slated for closure. The parks department made the list. Every park is important, she said, and the public expressed concerns about many on the list. Final decisions were largely based on ability to physically close a park and possible revenue generation at a specific park. In addition to the closures, most parks had to cut hours and services.
Linda van der Valk of the Chatsworth Historical Society pointed out the history and significance of Los Encinos. “Once it’s closed, it’s a treasure that’s gone forever.”
Former Los Angeles City Council member Joy Picus told the advisory council that with today’s “pervasive mentality of less government” people should remember that “Parks is government.”
Pavley, a former teacher and Valley native, meets with community leaders quarterly to give updates on major legislative action, present speakers on state and regional issues and answer questions.
-- Judith Daniels is vice president of the Chatsworth Neighborhood Council.