Diminished services at state parks likely to continue under funding proposed by Gov. Brown

Many state parks, including those on the North Coast, have had to cut back on hours and staffing because of perennial budget problems. That situation is unlikely to change under Brown’s new budget recommendation.|

The North Coast’s new state senator has vowed to press for more money for California’s state parks, warning that Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget released Friday threatens public access and the long-term financial health of the 279-park system.

“This budget does not get the public back onto their lands,” Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said Friday. “We are threatening the long-term existence of our beloved state parks.”

Brown characterized the one-time increase of $16.8 million for California’s Department of Parks and Recreation in 2015-16 as a way of maintaining existing services while longer-term revenue solutions are considered. The proposal represents a ?$2.8 million bump over the previous fiscal year.

But McGuire, who has met with state parks officials since taking office six weeks ago, said if Brown’s budget is adopted as-is, state parks will be down to only $5.6 million remaining in the system’s reserve fund, which stood at $70 million prior to the recession.

“We can’t keep digging into reserves to keep our state parks open,” McGuire said.

He said he will advocate for more money for state parks, with the amount contingent upon an analysis of what it costs to operate each individual park.

A state parks representative said Friday the amount of reserves could fluctuate depending on revenues. But she did not dispute the critical need for state parks to find new sources of revenue.

“That’s why this is not a sustainable funding model, and why it is critical to identify long- term solutions,” said Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Many state parks, including those on the North Coast, have had to cut back on hours and staffing because of budget problems. That situation is unlikely to improve under Brown’s budget recommendations.

“You’re not going to see a lot of changes at state parks,” Caryl Hart, Sonoma County’s regional parks director and a former state parks commissioner, said Friday. “At the end of the day, we need to continue to look for sustainable funding for state parks.”

Parks Forward, a blue-ribbon panel created by the state Legislature in 2013 to weigh recommendations for change within the parks system, is expected to release its final report later this month. The overarching goal is the transformation of the state’s sprawling network of parks into a modern, integrated system that takes advantage of current technology and bolsters partnerships between public and private entities.

Under this vision, park visitors could pay day-use fees using debit or credit cards and navigate parks using wireless Internet and digital trail maps. There also would be more lodging for overnight stays and transportation options for getting to and around parks.

But the key hurdle remains how to pay for it all, while also covering the day-to-day expenses of the park system, which has a maintenance backlog estimated at $1 billion. Brown’s budget for this fiscal year calls for an additional $20 million to address maintenance needs. The agency’s current total budget for maintenance is $18 million.

The governor also is setting aside $3 million for a “transformation team” that would help implement the Parks Forward recommendations.

“Once there is confidence state parks is on the right path, we’ll see some new sources of funding and really begin to rebuild the system,” said Hart, who is a member of Parks Forward.

California’s Department of Parks and Recreation was rocked in 2012 by a financial scandal that exposed mismanagement and financial chicanery at the highest levels of the agency. Media reports revealed that the department was stockpiling millions of dollars at a time when the state was threatening to close dozens of parks because of budget cuts.

John Laird, secretary of California’s Natural Resources Agency, said Friday the agency has made “significant changes” since then. He cited new and better methods of accounting for money and financial transparency.

“That should send a signal that there is confidence in addressing these issues,” he said.

Laird said that it would have been “really nice” had the governor’s budget included “significantly more funding” for state parks. But he said the proposed allocations are enough to give state officials more time to address management and operational issues.

Michele Luna, executive director of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, said the governor’s proposed increase, while relatively modest, is still an improvement.

“At least it’s going up,” she said. “In years past, it was going down, down, down.”

Luna also noted that the $20 million for deferred maintenance is not tied to increases in the state’s tax proceeds, as was the case last year when the governor proposed $40 million for the same purpose. The funding never came through.

“Obviously, it’s just a small amount of what’s needed, but at least it’s something,” she said.

The Stewards group operates Austin Creek State Recreation Area in Guerneville under an agreement with the state. Nonprofit organizations also manage Sugarloaf Ridge State Park near Kenwood and Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. The partnerships were conceived when the state was threatening to close as many as 70 state parks because of budget problems.

Richard Dale, executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center, a main partner operating Sugarloaf, said the governor’s proposed budget doesn’t do much for the park, which he said has a deferred maintenance backlog of $6 million.

“It doesn’t really change a whole lot for us,” Dale said. “We’re still working with the community to make these places available, open and nice.”

But Assemblyman Marc Levine, chairman of the state Assembly’s Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, said Friday that the “important thing to note is that all of our parks will remain open in this year’s budget.”

Levine, D-San Rafael, also acknowledged the frustration many park users feel over reductions that remain in place at favorite outdoor haunts.

“This budget leaves a lot to be desired for park lovers like me,” Levine said.

He also called the additional $20 million sought by Brown for deferred park maintenance a “paltry” amount to address the mounting unmet needs.

Levine said he has scheduled a committee hearing in February to review the Parks Forward recommendations.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdem?ocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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