Californians are feeling betrayed after learning that the Department of Parks and Recreation, while pleading abject poverty and begging for donors to keep 70 state parks from closing, was hoarding nearly $54 million in special accounts, underreporting its holdings to the state. Much of the money was earmarked for specific purposes, but even the remainder is enough to keep the 70 parks open for close to two years. Some of the donors who generously stepped forward to form nonprofits to run parks complain that they were duped. We on the editorial board were misled into calling for Gov. Jerry Brown to provide more money to keep most of the parks open. Taxpayers feel they were put through the wringer with baseless threats about the closures. (As it turned out, with various deals and fundraising, all but one of the parks are still open.)
The department appears to have concealed the money in two accounts for 12 years, reporting accurate figures to the state controller and inaccurate information to the governor's budget office, an indication that this was intentional and not just incredibly bad bookkeeping. One account was funded by park fees, the other by fees assessed on off-road vehicles, which must be used for facilities or services for off-roaders. Traditionally, special funds have not undergone the same level of state scrutiny as money from the general fund. But that clearly has to end.
Parks Director Ruth Coleman has resigned, though she denies knowing anything about the hoarded millions. That's quite possible. The hoarding started two years before she even took the job — but it was nonetheless her responsibility. Her top deputy was fired.
But the rolling of a couple of heads barely begins to address the underlying problem. The Brown administration will have to act quickly if it wants to prevent this from eroding taxpayer faith in state finances and making voters less willing to support the governor's tax measure on the November ballot. Many tax opponents have long assumed that the state had untapped money; even though this is a limited amount that hardly makes up for years of deferred maintenance and understaffing at parks, those tax opponents now have something solid to hold up as evidence.
To restore a measure of trust, the state must give the public a full and transparent explanation of exactly how this happened and who was responsible. It also should audit all special accounts across all state departments — there are many dozens of them — and report on what it has found. Then it must show that it is using any newly found funds responsibly and for the benefit of Californians.