Correction: We originally reported that the Parks Department "had secretly hoarded more than $50 million, at a time when Gov. Jerry Brown's administration had slated 70 parks for closure." When the scandal first became public, the Brown administration said Parks had held onto $54 million, in two different funds. However, a later investigation by the Attorney General's office found that the money in one of the two funds wasn't hidden after all - it was a confusion from the accounting process. Therefore, only $20 million had been hidden. We regret the error.
California’s state parks system has faced a rough few years: Deep cuts during the recession, and a financial scandal that rocked the department. Now, a state commission is just days away from releasing a report that demands the department modernize itself and Governor Jerry Brown’s new budget proposes only enough money to buy the parks system a year to turn itself around.
Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park is barely a cannon’s shot from the state Capitol.
For years, it has hosted elementary school students throughout California. On a recent day, students from Sacramento’s David Lubin Elementary School are visiting. They’re taking part in the Environmental Living Program. They, and some of their parents, spend 24 hours at the fort in costumes from 1846, to learn about life as pioneers.
Third-grader Joseph Cochran says he has noticed a few differences between life back then and the present day.
“With the pioneers, they didn’t have electronics like we do today – like Playstation, PS2s," says Cochran. "And they didn’t like have football teams or something. And they didn’t have fancy clothes like jeans, basketball shoes.”
Sutter’s Fort never closed during the recession, but it – and all 270 state parks – have faced their share of cuts. Capital Public Radio's Marianne Russ had this report in October 2009:
“They’re the kind of changes that park goers will notice: Some will be open only a few days a week. There will be fewer open restrooms, trash cans and open campgrounds. There will also be fewer school tours of historic parks.”
The low point for the state parks system came in summer 2012. The department’s director resigned after reports that the parks department had secretly hoarded $20 million, at a time when Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration had slated 70 parks for closure.
Brown’s Secretary of Natural Resources, John Laird, took up damage control.
“This is deeply disappointing because we just went to many partners around the state to get them to step up and cover the shortfall, and I’m truly sorry about that," Laird said.
Two-and-a-half years later, all parks are still open – some, thanks to partnerships with non-profit groups, or federal or local agencies. The governor proposes some new money for the parks system for long-standing maintenance and new revenue-generating projects.
He’s also setting aside some one-time money to continue existing service levels.
“When we say maintain service, we mean at the current level – so not at where we were five years ago, where we were 10 years ago," says Acting Parks Director Lisa Mangat says.
Meanwhile, a state commission is just days away from releasing a final report that’s expected to call for an outside parks funding partner. And Mangat has responded to the commission’s draft report by creating a “Transformation Team” to lead the system’s overhaul.
“We can’t keep putting off the heavy lift and taking a really good, hard look at ourselves as a department and reset things," says Mangat. "And so that’s where we look to the Transformation Team."
She says the department is looking at adding new camping loops at popular parks and allowing visitors to pay with credit cards, or even their cell phones. Bigger changes are likely not too far down the road.
Patti Weber, one of the third-grade teachers at Sacramento’s David Lubin Elementary whose students are visiting Sutter’s Fort, says the parks scandal shouldn’t have happened and it’s time for the state to turn its parks system around.
“To be accessible to the highest number of people who would like to be here visiting, to any of our parks," says Weber. "If there’s a way to lessen bureaucracy and make the places better, then I guess that’s what I’m for.”
The governor’s budget says the one-time money for existing service levels will give the Transformation Team the time to turn the parks system around.
The implication is clear -- money won’t be available next year.