California Parks’ ‘Special Fund? and the Health of Golden State Recreation

Recent revelations from the California Department of Parks and Recreation point to $54 million in special funds squirreled away during a time when budget deficits are forcing nearly one quarter of all California parks to shutter their doors. This money, accumulated over the course of 12 years, was enough to cover the department’s cuts several times over. Several top officials at the department have been forced to resign because of the department’s lack of transparency in this time of fiscal trouble, including Ruth Coleman, the longest-running parks director in state history, and her heir apparent. All involved claim no knowledge of the funds’ existence.

While this scandal has brought to light what appears to be a case of government mismanagement and unaccountability, it has also been a proof-of-concept for the decentralized creation of public goods. Most of the 70 State Parks that lost their funding were saved by a combination of nonprofits and local governments who wanted to keep them open to protect their own interests. If more parks were set to close, it is likely even more outside funding would come out of the woodworks to protect them. While this sudden drop of dozens of state recreational facilities is nearly unprecedented, transferring the operations of such properties is becoming increasingly popular, along with the leasing or privatization of other venues such as zoos and libraries.

These new funds potentially could have kept some of California’s State Parks open for a few more years. Unfortunately, these are one-time sources of revenue rather than a permanent solution to the department’s budget deficit. The biggest fall-out from all of this is that it could make reaching such permanent solutions more difficult. Already, Sonoma County park advocates decided to cancel a local sales tax ballot measure which was set to provide long-term funding for the area’s closing State parks. Strangely, supporters who claimed the State’s financial mismanagement was “just too much [to overcome],” are putting financial responsibility for these important assets back into the State’s hands.

Maybe Ms. Coleman, who was known for advancing outdoor recreation and forging partnerships with corporations and nonprofits, did not do such a bad job after all. By not announcing these funds, she at once concentrated park funding in California’s most popular parks where they could do the most good, while simultaneously making sure parks in underserved areas remained permanently funded through private and local sources of income.

In the end, this news is a surprising change of pace: government officials irresponsibly saving money instead of irresponsibly spending it.

With budgets strained tighter than ever it is becoming increasingly necessary to have legislators more informed and accountable. For further insight, check here.