By Rick Barclay and Michael Walsh
Some of you may already have heard the news, but for those of you who haven’t, there’s been an unfortunate development within the California Department of Parks and Recreation (State Parks). The purpose of this letter is to explain what this development is and how it impacts your financial support of Palomar Mountain State Park — whether you’ve already made a pledge or donation, or are contemplating doing so.
Based on information gleaned from news media, here’s what was announced by Sacramento Friday, July 20th: The director of state parks resigned and a deputy was fired after officials learned the department sat on nearly $54 million in surplus money for years, while parks such as Palomar were threatened with closure over budget cuts. So far there are no accusations that taxpayer money is missing.
Investigations into the issue show that the discrepancy is related to two accounts, which apparently understated the revenues that the state was taking in from entrance fees and parks and concession contracts — compared with what it was reporting to the state’s primary accounting department. State investigators have determined that nearly $20.4 million in the State Parks and Recreation Fund was not disclosed to state budget officials. Nearly $33.5 million in the parks’ Off Highway Vehicle Fund was also not reported.
Preliminary findings suggest the reporting errors date back at least 12 years. It’s not clear why the accounts weren’t properly reported, and the investigation is continuing. State officials said Gov. Jerry Brown accepted the director’s resignation and has appointed California Natural Resources Agency Undersecretary Janelle Beland as acting interim director of the department.
We at Friends of Palomar, like many of our colleagues across the state, are shocked and deeply disappointed with this news from Sacramento. Faced with looming closure and significant deferred maintenance issues, all of us have worked very hard and have given generously to save Palomar and keep it open for future generations. Despite this recent disclosure, we remain confident that our work has been and will be critical to ensuring that Palomar Mountain State Park remains open, and we will continue to work to improve the park and ultimately make it self-sustaining.
What does this mean to you as a financial supporter — or prospective financial supporter — of Palomar Mountain State Park?
At this point we can’t give a definitive answer because we don’t have all the facts. For example, the nature of the $54 million surplus isn’t entirely known, particularly with respect to how much it could have offset the targeted annual budget reduction of $22 million, that necessitated putting 70 state parks on the chopping block. It’s easy to compare this apparent $54 million windfall with the $22 million annual budget savings target, and conclude that there really was no deficit after all, and therefore no need to raise money. But this would be an overly simplistic conclusion, and probably not accurate. For example, we don’t know the rate at which this $54 million surplus was accumulated, and therefore we can’t predict what amount if any of this surplus can be counted on for the future. And if it turns out that this amount is just a one-shot deal, it may provide only a partial solution to the funding issues at California State Parks. We must wait for the investigation to runs its course so that we understand the entire picture, before drawing any conclusions.
Nevertheless, we would like to take this opportunity to give you some peace of mind. First, your contributions are safe, and, second, your contributions were and are still much needed by the Palomar Mountain State Park.
With respect to stewardship of your donations and disclosure:
•Friends of Palomar Mountain State Park is an arm of the independent nonprofit association CRSPIA, that works with, not for, State Parks.
•State Parks does not handle any contributions to Friends of Palomar Mountain State Park. All contributions go directly from you into the association’s checking account, whether you donate by check, cash or credit card.
•State Parks does not have access to this account in any way.
•No disbursement is made to State Parks from this account unless (1) it’s required to fulfill our agreement with State Parks for keeping Palomar open and (2) it’s explicitly approved by the association’s board.
All contributions are reflected on our “Fund Drive Standings,” a running total which you may see on our website or by writing us or giving us a call.
With respect to whether your contribution was really needed:
•Your generosity and volunteer efforts enabled us to keep Palomar Mountain State Park open, despite the threat of closure July 1, 2012. We have a signed three-year agreement to keep the park open and operational, during which time we will work to improve the park and make it self-sustaining.
•We must wait for the results of the state’s investigation and the Legislature’s decision as to if and how it will deploy the apparent surplus in order to mitigate any budget shortfalls among the state parks, including Palomar. This will take some time, and the outcome is uncertain.
•Even in the best of times, California state parks need financial support from the private sector, and Palomar is certainly no exception. This isn’t a new tradition necessitated by the most recent budget cuts and threat of closure. Charitable organizations dedicated to California state parks --- called “cooperating associations” --- have existed since 1971. Over 80 parks throughout California enjoy the support of a cooperating association, which raises money to supplement the park’s budget for educational programs, restorations projects and so on. It seems like even in boom times our state parks need a helping hand.
Bottom line, regardless of how this recent discovery turns out, your financial support of Palomar was and continues to be needed, and it will have an immeasurable impact on the park for future generations.
Rick Barclay is chairman and Michael Walsh is vice chairman of Friends of Palomar Mountain State Park