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Not enough green for parks

September 01, 2008|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Labor Day means picnics in parks. State budget deficits mean continued deterioration of state parks. And that's where Californians are this holiday.

A million people are expected to pack California's 279 state parks this weekend.

And 121 people -- the legislators and governor -- still are trying to fill yet another budget hole that gobbles up money that should be going to parks.

Leafing through a lengthy legislative budget proposal, I was stunned to read: "State parks have an approximate deferred maintenance need of $1.2 billion."

This particular proposal offered a mere $12.2 million in catch-up maintenance money, roughly what Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has recommended and the sum most likely to be ultimately approved. All the money came from bond funds authorized by voters in 2006 -- a questionable public policy of repairing leaky plumbing and washed-out trails with borrowed money that the state still will be paying back in 30 years.

Pay-as-you-go would be a preferred policy, but under current circumstances there seems little choice. There's not much money for maintenance, let alone repairs.

"There are a lot of bathrooms that don't work, which is disgusting," says Bobby Shriver, former chairman of the state parks commission.

"Many parks are not properly patrolled. One ranger is responsible for thousands of acres so there's no true safety."

Shriver was booted off the commission in March by his brother-in-law, the governor. Officially, the Santa Monica city councilman was denied the reappointment he had sought. Actor-director Clint Eastwood, the commission vice-chairman, received the same punishment.

Their crime? Trying to protect San Onofre State Beach from a six-lane toll road advocated by the governor.

Schwarzenegger began the year by proposing to close 48 parks and reduce lifeguards at beaches in San Diego, Orange and Santa Cruz counties. His action dramatized the state's fiscal predicament but also created a public uproar. There are nearly 80 million park visits each year.

The governor's whacking of parks would have saved only $13.3 million -- relative chump change -- and lost an estimated $3.7 million in park fees. By May, he backed off.

But it illustrated the parks' persistent peril.

"We've taken a big cut over the years," says Ruth Coleman, director of the state Parks and Recreation Department. "Every time the economy drops, parks takes a budget hit, then doesn't recover during the good times. That's why we have a $1.2-billion backlog. . . .

"Toilets and showers back up. Pipes leak. Waste water treatment really is antiquated. Some campgrounds built in the '50s and '60s don't meet water quality standards. Our ability to provide camping spots hasn't kept up with the population."

There are 15,000 campsites in 115 parks. There also are 19,000 picnic tables and 5,100 buildings.

When sides of buildings aren't regularly painted or rain gutters cleaned, Coleman notes, a roof or a whole building ultimately needs to be replaced.

I ask whether the $1.2-billion figure for deferred maintenance might be exaggerated -- more a wish list than an honest accounting of needed repairs.

"Nobody argues with us on the numbers," the director replies. All maintenance and lack of it, she explains, is logged into a computer and has been for the last few years, a rare technological advancement in state bureaucracy.

She says the department receives about $67 million annually for maintenance but needs an additional $120 million. So the deferred maintenance keeps backing up.

In the last good year for the state, 2006, the governor and Legislature provided the parks department with a one-time boost of $250 million for fix-up projects.

But times quickly turned bad, and the governor grabbed back all but $45 million.

In 2006, voters approved a $5.4-billion water bond issue that included $400 million for parks acquisition, development and restoration. Roughly $30 million of that is proposed for the pending budget, leaving $278 million still available.

Overall, the department this year is in line to receive status quo funding: about $477 million, most of it from the red-ink general fund and visitor fees.

General fund contributions gradually have been declining while user fees have been climbing, but still are a bargain.

Park entrance tabs vary from $2 to $10 per car. Most camping fees range from $15 to $40. All will rise a few bucks next year.

The system gets aid from the private California State Parks Foundation, which is helping to develop the new Los Angeles State Historic Park near downtown Los Angeles.

But in the state Capitol, parks continually fight a losing battle against the big-ticket programs: education, health and welfare, prisons.

"We're budget dust," Coleman says. "We're usually the first to be cut."

Assembly Budget Committee Chairman John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) says, "We've slowly been starving the parks."

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