Parking fees at Sonoma Coast state beaches? Not a popular idea.

The reception didn't get any warmer when people learned that the state Department of Parks and Recreation hid a $54 million surplus while saying $22 million in budget cuts would force the closure of 70 parks.

At least for now, the parks have been spared.

But there are new reasons to question the department's priorities.

According to a report in the Bay Citizen, parks officials waived more than $600,000 in fees for private events at Hearst Castle, one of its most marketable facilities. The beneficiaries included former state schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell and Maria Shriver.

O'Connell hosted a pair of 60th birthday parties for himself in 2011, inviting 55 guests to each one for a reception and a dip in the famous Neptune pool, surrounded by colonnades and Roman-style temples. The typical fee would have been $22,100 per night; he paid $10,000 to a nonprofit association supporting Hearst Castle but nothing to the parks department.

Shriver was first lady in 2004 when she helped start a race benefiting Best Buddies, an international charity dedicated to people with developmental disabilities. The initial race grossed more than $1.5 million, according to the Bay Citizen report. By 2008, revenue had grown to $2.7 million. The state waived fees for the race until 2009 — forfeiting about $80,000 in revenue.

O'Connell and Shriver say they didn't know they were getting special treatment. "I just sent what was requested," O'Connell said. "I paid what was asked." But parks officials conceded that politics played a role in who did and who didn't pay fees for events at Hearst Castle, according to the Bay Citizen, an online publication affiliated with the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Irresponsible? Indeed.

But a reason to abandon plans for parking fees at North Coast beaches? Not necessarily.

The fees, had they been collected, would have gone to the parks department's San Luis Obispo Coast District. There, state officials said, the money would have been available for maintenance and visitor services at a dozen parks, including Hearst Castle.

Statewide, there's a maintenance backlog pegged at more than $1 billion. Meanwhile, general fund support for the parks system has declined by almost 40 percent over the past five years. Two years ago, voters rejected a surcharge on vehicle registrations to boost funding for parks. That means park users must pick up a bigger share of the cost.

That isn't unfair, although parks must remain an affordable recreation option for everyone.

Many of the community groups that saved parks from closure are counting on entry fees and/or parking revenue to help cover their costs. And a new law requires the parks department to improve its collection of entry fees, which are as high as $15 at some beaches in Southern California and run $8 at several North Coast beaches.

As prices go, free is good. But it won't keep parks open.