Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, one of many in California caught in the middle of the unfolding scandal (photo: vtveen/Flickr)
Talk about a big mess in our state’s Capitol.
Just two weeks ago, we, as tax paying citizens, discovered nearly $54 million in special funds was found within the California State Parks Department. Talk about a shock to the system.
Now, brace yourselves, we’re finding out our state may have had hundreds of millions of dollars more than the governor and lawmakers knew about as they struggled to close this year’s budget deficit. You heard right—hundreds of millions of dollars!
What is going on?
It appears folks up in Sacramento are scrambling to try and explain discrepancies in about 24 state funds.
There’s one case where $133 million just sat there, going unnoticed in a bottle recycling program. That money, including the cool $54 million could have gone to save cuts in welfare or parks.
And to make matters worse, California’s borrowing from special fund accounts has reached nearly $4.3 billion, more than five times the amount from June 2008, according to a recent semiannual report released by the state Department of Finance. Our own Fred Silva gives background on this very issue.
You can bet quite a few people are fuming, especially the volunteers who spent countless hours raising money to save all 70 state parks that were on the state budget chopping block, threatening to close their gates back on July 1.
Earlier this year, Governor Jerry Brown approved the park closures as a way to save money, a projected $22 million.
Carolyn Schoff, President of the Friends of Pio Pico, the non-profit behind the fundraising efforts says she’s experienced every bit of emotion in the past week.
“The governor’s office called to warn me,” said Schoff. “The news broke my heart. I felt betrayed and very angry.”
Schoff said nothing could have prepared her for the rash of responses from outraged supporters. “We spent so much time raising funds.”
Her biggest concern now? The public’s perception of the non-profit.
“This is not a reflection on us and the scandal has nothing to do with us, but people look at the state parks as one entity, but we are separate. I’m concerned the public will have a hard time trusting us from here on out,” Schoff said.
City leaders are also fuming. They donated $30,000 to the cause.
In fact, the city sent a letter to the State Parks department asking for a refund of their money. (read the letter here)
In it, the council said:
“because of the significance of this heritage site to the region… the Whittier City Council dipped into general reserve funds and filled the gap… while at the same time making the painful decision to cute six full time staff members and dramatically reduce beloved community programs and services to live within the City’s budget… It is not likely the City Council would have been compelled to “save” PPSHP form closure if the Council had known that State Parks had secreted almost $54,000,000 and had implemented a secret vacation buyout program.”
Addressing the many people who also donated, the letter said, “having the State demand this contribution from an economically struggling population at a time when there are surplus funds in the budget is obscene.”
Gov. Jerry Brown has pledged to try and save some of the secret stash to keep the parks open, it only makes sense, but we’ll see if this happens considering our state is in such dire straits financially.
It’s a glimmer of hope for Schoff, but she said the work continues.
“Everything is still up in the air, so we must forge ahead to keep the park open.”
In the meantime, Schoff said, hopefully from all of this, they’ll get some good. “I hope this leads to more transparency and accountability with the public. I hope they (the state parks department) learn to be better stewards for all Californians.
As the investigation within the department continues, park supporters wait anxiously to get some answers to their burning questions.