The stunning revelation Friday that the California Parks Department had a hidden surplus of nearly $54 million while dozens of state parks were threatened with closure brought angry condemnation from parks advocates and an abrupt end to a Sonoma County plan to raise more park revenue through a sales tax increase.
"It's just completely the most devastating news that I can imagine," said Caryl Hart, Sonoma County's regional parks director.
Hart and other county officials on Friday abruptly halted plans to advance a ballot measure proposing a countywide sales tax increase to support local parks.
The decision was made only hours after State Parks Director Ruth Coleman, who had led the agency since 2003, resigned amid revelations that the department had nearly $54 million in surplus money that possibly could have been used to keep 70 state parks off a closure list.
Almost all of those parks, including four in Sonoma County, got a reprieve after nonprofits, county governments and other organizations entered into operating agreements with the state to take over park operations on a temporary basis.
Advocates now are worried about public support for parks eroding in the wake of Friday's developments. The news also threatens a nonprofit's pending application to take over operations at Austin Creek State Recreation Area in Guerneville.
Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods was notified Thursday that its application must now go through the state Attorney General's Office before it can be considered for final approval, according to Michele Luna, the group's executive director.
She said Stewards already had received tentative approval to operate in the park and that the group was planning to purchase a used truck on Monday on the contingency that the money would be reimbursed from the state.
"We've been working so hard this whole year, and now we see something like this. Yeah, we're concerned," Luna said Friday.
Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday directed the Attorney General, the state Department of Finance and the Natural Resources Agency to conduct separate investigations into the circumstances that surround "significant budgetary irregularities" within the parks department.
A preliminary investigation into the agency's finances revealed that for at least 12 years, the agency under reported nearly $54 million in reserves to the finance department, according to John Laird, the state's Natural Resources Director.
Laird said state finance officials were not aware that the State Parks and Recreation Fund had an additional $20 million and that the Off Highway Vehicle Fund had an additional $33 million above their official, most recently reported balances. It's unclear how much of the money is dedicated for specific purposes or can be used generally on things such as staff salaries or to keep parks open.
In her resignation letter to Brown, Coleman stated that she was "unaware" of the "excessive balance" in the park and recreation fund. But she took responsibility for what she presented as the actions of her staff.
"The signature characteristic of a leader is to take responsibility and to be held accountable for the organization they lead," she wrote.
Coleman's departure also followed a story in Sunday's Sacramento Bee that reported that a deputy director at the parks department carried out a secret vacation buyout program for employees at department headquarters last year that cost the state more than $271,000.