Another View: The parks department that cried wolf

Another View
By: Beth Gaines, guest columnist
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As a small business owner, when I make a mistake I do not expect my customers to pay the difference. Yet when the state makes a mistake, it expects us to pay the difference. In light of the recent outrageous scandal at the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the state may want to change its approach. By now, most Californians have heard of the mismanagement, incompetence and corruption at the Parks Department. The department that has moved to close 70 state parks, such as the old Governor’s Mansion, because of a “lack of revenue” was actually sitting on $54 million all along. At the same time, senior Parks officials were caught enriching themselves through an improper vacation cash-out program. Sadly, it appears what was uncovered at the Parks Department is only the tip of the iceberg on the culture of greed within some parts of state government. The Brown Administration has acknowledged they only have an “honor system” in place to track $37 billion in special funds throughout the state; including the $54 million that was uncovered in the Parks Department. The notion of having an honor system to handle a large sum of money is absurd. Given that these special funds represent close to a third of the annual state budget, it defies good business sense to safeguard $37 billion via word of mouth. This is a disgrace and that is why we need to get to the bottom of it. As a member of the State Assembly’s Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, I have asked the state’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee to move forward with a request to audit the Parks Department when it holds its quarterly meeting on Aug. 7. It is imperative that this independent audit, conducted by the nonpartisan State Auditor, move forward as soon as possible. The hidden $54 million and the vacation buyout raise serious concerns about the possibility for other abuse that may have occurred in the department. Taxpayers deserve clarity and the Legislature needs to conduct an audit that demands answers to very troubling questions. For example, we want to know why park staff had grown from 3,247 positions in 2001 to 4,094 today even though our park system hardly grew. Of these positions, 565 were vacant as of May 2012, resulting in at least $24 million in savings. Where did this money go? In 2011, there were $22 million in budget cuts imposed on the state parks. This would not have been necessary if the department had not hid $54 million — over double the amount of the cut budget. At the same time the department was hiding these funds, they were also employing the “Washington Monument Strategy”- a tactic initially used by the national Park Service to threaten the closure of the famed Monument whenever faced with serious cuts in spending. The strategy being, if taxpayers do not agree to pay more, then beloved public treasures will close. Such a strategy takes advantage of the fact that Californians have a genuine desire to help during times of real need. No one should be surprised if Californians ignore future calls for help. That could be the real tragedy — the further betrayal of public trust. The parks scandal has put every state government employee under a cloud of suspicion even though most are hard-working and dedicated to public service. To protect their integrity and to protect taxpayers’ wallets, we need to ensure that every existing dollar is spent wisely and that is why I’m calling on the members of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee to pass my request for an audit of the California State Parks Department. Assemblywoman Beth Gaines represents the 4th Assembly District, which includes portions of Sacramento, Placer, El Dorado and Alpine counties.