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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Let Experts Spend Park Funds

September 15, 2002

The Orange County Board of Supervisors should reverse its August decision to have individual supervisors determine how and where to spend $16 million in state bond measure funding. Supervisors should rethink their vote and turn the one-time cash infusion over to where it belongs--the experts at the county harbors, beaches and parks department.

The funds in question were generated by Proposition 12, a park bond measure that state voters passed in March 2000. The proposition is viewed as a lifesaver for local, regional and state parks in California, where the booming population is putting an increased strain on parks. Supervisors voted Aug. 20 to split the Proposition 12 funds among their districts instead of accepting a spending plan submitted by the harbors, beaches and parks staff.

The board decision arguably was driven by a desire to ease the shortage of park space in North County, an issue that has been building for decades as South County added larger parks. But, in an era of increasingly tight budgets, voters need to know that limited parks funding is being used in the most effective fashion--not being divvied up to suit the desires of individual elected officials.

Some critics fault the harbors, beaches and parks agency for suggesting that $8 million of the Proposition 12 money be used for the mundane but necessary business of improving sewer lines at Irvine and O'Neill regional parks. Supervisor Chuck Smith, in fact, argued that voters had approved Proposition 12 to fund safe neighborhood parks, not "county parks sewer systems."

In fact, Proposition 12 clearly allows funds to be used for the necessary business of managing and maintaining the state's hefty investment in parks and natural areas.

Supporters of Proposition 12 campaigned for the ballot measure by noting that the maintenance backlog for California's local and urban parks had reached $2.5 billion--and that deferred maintenance and repair projects at state parks had risen to more than $1 billion.

Harbors, Beaches and Parks clearly needs the $12 million.

Every year since 1996, the county has slashed at least $4 million from the department's budget to help cover payments on $1.4 billion in debt that the county assumed in the wake of the painful 1994 bankruptcy.

It's understandable that supervisors want to take care of the green space in their own backyards. But splitting $16 million into five funds isn't the right way to address the undeniably complex and costly business of ensuring that county residents enjoy easy access to parks.

Parks fall within a supervisor's district because of how boundaries are drawn. When those districts are redrawn--as they were last year--parks shift from one district to another, a process that undermines supervisors' arguments that they're simply looking out for longtime constituents.

What's more, the county operates regional parks that serve residents in and outside the county. It's wrong to assume that residents don't use parks outside of their supervisor's district. By that logic, nobody living north of the Costa Mesa Freeway would ever use the Great Park.

The harbors, beaches and parks department is responsible for developing and maintaining county parks. It's not fair to penalize the department for giving an honest--if not particularly sexy--plan to use the funds to fix sewer systems. Supervisors should give the department a much-needed vote of confidence and let the experts determine how to spend the Proposition 12 funds.

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