California State Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned last Friday, and her second in command has been fired after officials discovered the department has been sitting on nearly $54 million in surplus money for up to 12 years.
This is both shocking and infuriating. In May, 2011, Coleman announced the closure of 70 of California’s 279 parks due to budget cuts. Immediately, legions of grassroots activists across the state, including Care2 members, sprang into action to find ways to save the parks.
They worked so hard that they were able to rescue all but five of the parks slated for closure.
And now we learn that the State Parks Department was sitting on $54 million? Did Coleman really not know anything about this money?
As The Sacramento Bee explains, the moves come in the wake of a scandal, revealed by The Bee on Sunday, in which a deputy director at State Parks carried out a secret vacation buyout program for employees at department headquarters last year. The buyout cost the state more than $271,000.
When it learned about the buyout, the newspaper began inquiring about rumors of a surplus, and submitted a Public Records Act request for the fund data.
Hooray for The Sacramento Bee and their bold, investigative reporting!
From The Sacramento Bee:
John Laird, secretary of the state Natural Resources Agency, which oversees State Parks, told The Bee that investigations have been launched by both the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Finance to figure out how — and why — the Department of Parks and Recreation squirreled away so much money for so long.
“Ruth has stepped up and taken personal responsibility,” Laird said of Coleman, who is the longest-serving director in the 150-year history of the department. “It’s an incredibly troubling discovery.”
Laird emphasized that it remains unclear who is to blame for the surplus, and whether it is linked to the vacation buyout, which sources told The Bee was carried out by Manuel Thomas Lopez, 45, of Granite Bay, who was demoted in October and then resigned in May.
It turns out that the “extra” money consists of $20.3 million in the Parks and Recreation Fund, and $33.5 million in the Off Highway Vehicle Fund, which are the two primary operating funds at the agency. This money was not reported to the state Finance Department, in contrast to normal budgeting procedures.
While I applaud The Sacramento Bee for digging up this dirt, the news of this hidden $54 million is a slap in the face for all the work that activists have put in to save the parks. If Coleman and her cohorts knew about this money, this likely will damage support and sympathy for state parks from members of the State Legislature and the public.
Why should all those volunteers want to step up any more, if there is really no need for these budget cuts?
What do you think? Did you sign to petition to save California State Parks?
Photo Credit: m_azen_alasmar