Some call it hypocritical. Some call it self-destructive for a state that cherishes its global reputation for majestic coastlines and open space areas. Whatever the definition, the messages that California sends regarding the use and care of its state parks and beaches are, at best, confusing.
Faced with rising concern about obesity and sedentary lifestyles, particularly among children, Californians are often encouraged to get out and take advantage of the state's many recreation areas. Toward that end, they're aided by a 1976 Coastal Act that encourages "maximum access" to beaches.
But when it comes to funding and care of the state's
280 parks, the second largest state park system in the country, California sends a different message. This summer, the parks department finds itself at the center of competing challenges including a $1 billion backlog of park maintenance, outdated internal computer systems that complicate everything from accounting procedures to camping reservations and a high level of public distrust as a result of an embarrassing disclosure two years ago that the state Department of Parks and Recreation was hoarding millions at a time it was closing parks for financial reasons.
As a result, the parks system is in need of restructuring itself internally while finding a way to bolster revenue and rebuild public trust. It's a tall order.
As Staff Writer Derek Moore spelled out in his story last week ("State parks: Who pays?" June 22), a blue-ribbon committee created by the state Legislature has spelled out many of the department's problems and is set to make a series of recommendations this fall on how to proceed.
The trickiest of the issues before the committee are proposals to open up parks to sponsorship by private enterprise and to generate revenue by boosting fees and charging new ones, including a new $7 assessment for parking at 14 beaches in Sonoma Coast State Park and Salt Point. That plan, which includes the installation of self-pay machines, has generated major opposition in Sonoma County. Concerns on the coast are high that the plan, which includes no additional services, will only discourage use of these beaches. State officials say the fees are needed to maintain or restore services on the coast and to meet a directive from the state Legislature to find new ways to generate money.
But before proceeding with any master plan for charging higher fees and/or seeking public support for another bond measure, state leaders must make clear to the public what portion of general fund revenues is to be dedicated to parks. This year, the parks department had a budget of $428 million, which includes $161 million from the parks and recreation fund and more than $100 million in park-generated revenue. Overall, it's a drop in the bucket of a $108 billion general fund.
Moreover, support for parks has been inconsistent and unreliable for years given the chronic volatility of state revenues. General fund support for parks has declined from
$157 million in 2008 to $116 million in 2013. Despite the growth in state-managed open space areas over the past 22 years, general fund support has grown a mere 0.7 percent a year on average. Even if the public is willing to accept the need for increased fees, which in many cases is justified, what assurances will voters have that they won't be asked to dig deeper again once general fund support is further reduced?
Developing more public-private partnerships to operate parks, reforming the internal government structure of the parks department and, in some cases, charging higher fees for access all may be necessary measures. But what the state parks system needs most is a defined, stable and reliable source of funding and a clear vision of where parks fit among the state's priorities. At this point, the parks system is adrift, and merely mandating that they system generate more money by raising fees is no long-term solution to either stabilizing funding or building public confidence.