The Little Hoover Commission (LHC), an independent state oversight agency, has begun exploring solutions to the state parks funding crisis (see previous articles on pending legislation and Candlestick Point State Recreation Area ). The commission held a four-hour hearing March 27 to collect formal testimony from the Department of Parks and Recreation, the non-profit State Parks Foundation, an academic expert on parks, and a concessionaire.
Last year, the legislature and governor settled on a state budget that cuts $22 million from the state parks, resulting in plans to close 70 of 278 state parks by this coming July.
These budget cuts are part of a trend that has seen the amount of funding the state-parks system receives from the general fund cut by 67% over the last 30 years, according to testimony by Michael Harris, acting chief deputy director of the Parks Department.
After the hearing, press reports quoted Harris saying that nearly all of the 70 parks scheduled to close by July were likely to stay open because of agreements with other entities to take on the parks’ operations. However, the Parks Department later posted a news release clarifying that agreements have been reached to keep only 11 of the parks open.
“There are another 24 where partnership negotiations are in progress with cities, counties, non-profits and others and there is a strong likelihood that many of these will remain open,” the clarification said. “Beyond this, the Department has put out an RFP (Request for Proposals) on 11 parks, asking for bids back from non-profits or for-profits for operation of these particular parks.”
This public confusion about parks closures underscores how complicated the scramble has been by the department and others to try to staunch the impacts of the bleeding parks budget.
Sierra Club members and volunteers have been among those who have worked hard since last year to develop agreements between the Parks Department and nonprofit groups, as allowed by AB 42, to keep parks open. However, many of the agreements do not permanently solve the funding problem.
As Sierra Club California staff policy advocate Annie Pham testified during the public comment period at the hearing, we need long-term solutions and dedicated funding sources that will keep the parks open for years to come.
In the meantime, the legislature can help keep the parks from closing this summer when it adopts the 2012/2013 budget, by rejecting the governor’s proposed $11 million parks funding cut (the second half of the $22 million cut adopted last year).
Kathryn Phillips, director, Sierra Club California