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Report: California parks need new operating model

  • Leigh Skizewski, left, hikes with Doug Sanders, Andy Evans, and other members of the Sonoma County Wanderers along the Goodspeed Trail in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, near Kenwood, in 2012. (PD FILE, 2012)

SACRAMENTO — Over the years, California has added more parks to its state system than it can afford and should consider turning over control of some to local entities, a new report says.

The report released Monday by the Little Hoover Commission identified a number of problems with the park system. It even suggested that tourist favorite Hearst Castle might be better run by an operator such as the Getty Museum that is more versed in protecting the hilltop mansion's European art collection.

While the outlandish Central Coast home of William Randolph Hearst is a major source of revenue, its upkeep exceeds the income it generates through ticket sales and the cost of needed maintenance is as high as $60 million.

"We have to take a fresh and rigorous look at the system from top to bottom," said Stuart Drown, executive director of the commission, a state oversight agency. "We need a new business model and fresh thinking."

From the coast to the giant sequoias of the Sierra, the California parks system protects some of the most historic and breathtaking places in the world. For years, the department has allowed millions of dollars in maintenance problems to pile up as it struggled with shrinking budgets and a manager mindset unaccustomed to generating revenue or asking for help, the report said.

The commission began looking at the state park system a year ago. After decades of decreasing funding, a $22 million cut at the time from its $779 million budget threatened the closure of a quarter of the 278 parks in the system. Officials were unable to explain how the parks were chosen or the cost of operating individual sites.

The revelations — plus the discovery last year of $54 million hidden from the governor and Legislature in two special funds — damaged the public's faith in the park system, even as dozens of volunteer groups were scrambling to raise funds and form partnerships to keep them open.

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