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UPDATED: State parks shakeup kills plans for local tax measure

California State Parks held a workshop at the Church of One Tree in Santa Rosa to talk about groups partnering with the state to operate parks in February 2012. Parks Department Director Ruth Coleman opened the meeting. (Jeff Kan Lee / PD File)

By DEREK MOORE & BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The stunning revelation Friday that the California Parks Department had a hidden surplus of nearly $54 million while dozens of state parks were threatened with closure brought angry condemnation from parks advocates and an abrupt end to a Sonoma County plan to raise more park revenue through a sales tax increase.

“It’s just completely the most devastating news that I can imagine,” said Caryl Hart, Sonoma County’s regional parks director.

Hart and other county officials on Friday abruptly halted plans to advance a ballot measure proposing a countywide sales tax increase to support local parks.

The decision was made only hours after State Parks Director Ruth Coleman, who had led the agency since 2003, resigned amid revelations that the department had nearly $54 million in surplus money that possibly could have been used to keep 70 state parks off a closure list.

Almost all of those parks, including four in Sonoma County, got a reprieve after nonprofits, county governments and other organizations entered into operating agreements with the state to take over park operations on a temporary basis.

Advocates now are worried about public support for parks eroding in the wake of Friday’s developments. The news also threatens a nonprofit’s pending application to take over operations at Austin Creek State Recreation Area in Guerneville.

Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods was notified Thursday that its application must now go through the state Attorney General’s Office before it can be considered for final approval, according to Michele Luna, the group’s executive director.

She said Stewards already had received tentative approval to operate in the park and that the group was planning to purchase a used truck on Monday on the contingency that the money would be reimbursed from the state.

“We’ve been working so hard this whole year, and now we see something like this. Yeah, we’re concerned,” Luna said Friday.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday directed the Attorney General, the state Department of Finance and the Natural Resources Agency to conduct separate investigations into the circumstances that surround “significant budgetary irregularities” within the parks department.

A preliminary investigation into the agency’s finances revealed that for at least 12 years, the agency under reported nearly $54 million in reserves to the finance department, according to John Laird, the state’s Natural Resources Director.

Laird said state finance officials were not aware that the State Parks and Recreation Fund had an additional $20 million and that the Off Highway Vehicle Fund had an additional $33 million above their official, most recently reported balances. It’s unclear how much of the money is dedicated for specific purposes or can be used generally on things such as staff salaries or to keep parks open.

In her resignation letter to Brown, Coleman stated that she was “unaware” of the “excessive balance” in the park and recreation fund. But she took responsibility for what she presented as the actions of her staff.

“The signature characteristic of a leader is to take responsibility and to be held accountable for the organization they lead,” she wrote.

Coleman’s departure also followed a story in Sunday’s Sacramento Bee that reported that a deputy director at the parks department carried out a secret vacation buyout program for employees at department headquarters last year that cost the state more than $271,000.

A total of 56 employees took advantage of the buyout. To avoid a paper trail, the buyout requests were submitted in some cases only on Post-It notes and not official forms, the Bee reported.

The Attorney General’s investigation into the buyout program and a separate review of parks department records conducted by the agency’s fiscal staff revealed the hidden assets, according to Laird.

Mike Harris, the acting chief deputy director of state parks, also was fired Friday as a result of the scandal.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who drafted the legislation that allowed partnerships between state parks and groups seeking to save them, on Friday said he was “distressed and upset” by the revelations.

“It is certainly a dark day for the trust and confidence that we need to have in our parks officials,” Huffman said. “It is hopefully the beginning of a serious reset that turns this agency around.”

Huffman and Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, took part in budget hearings this year in which the two funds in question were looked at as possible funding sources for state parks.

Evans and Hart, who in addition to her county role is chairwoman of the California Parks and Recreation Commission, spoke Friday about the need to reconstitute the organization to give it more oversight of the state parks department.

Evans said she also plans to introduce legislation that would stiffen penalties for “public theft.”

“If there was embezzlement involved, it should carry special penalties in court,” she said.

Sonoma County officials had been planning to go public Saturday with their plans for a proposed quarter-percentage point sales tax increase to support city, county and state parks under local control.

If approved by voters, the measure would have generated more than $17 million a year for city, county and state parks under local control, including Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa. Officials were set to present the proposal on July 31 to the Board of Supervisors.

“I don’t see how we can go forward,” said Hart.

The proposal was driven quietly in the past several months by local park advocates, including the Sonoma County Regional Parks Foundation. A June poll paid for by the group showed that nearly three quarters of the 800 registered voters surveyed said they would vote for a tax to fund park improvements and water quality projects.

The Sonoma County Water Agency would have received some share of the tax money to support stream restoration and water quality projects. Currently much of that work is grant supported, said Grant Davis, the agency’s general manager.

“What an unfortunate set of circumstances,” he said about Friday’s news.

A majority of the tax funding would have gone to county and city parks as well as locally operated state parks and parks managed by unincorporated districts.

Melissa Kelley, executive director of the Sonoma County Regional Parks Foundation, said it was unlikely the group would seek to independently place the measure on the ballot for this November. She did not rule out reviving the proposal in the future.

“We’re really saddened that we’ll not have this opportunity immediately,” she said, adding “we’re going to continue to work very hard to make sure the parks system in Sonoma County is as strong and vibrant as it can possibly be.”

Friday’s developments could also threaten a plan to charge visitors $8 a day at numerous beaches along the Sonoma and Mendocino Coasts, 20 years after a similar effort sparked months of furious protest that ultimately forced the state to rescind the fees.

State parks officials on June 26 submitted an application to Sonoma County planners seeking a coastal development permit to install 15 self-pay machines at the beaches, including Goat Rock in Jenner, Bodega Head, Salt Point State Park and at several other beaches where access now is free.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose district includes those beaches, on Friday said those plans “should be put on the back burner.”





27 Responses to “UPDATED: State parks shakeup kills plans for local tax measure”

  1. Snarky says:

    Today, July 25th, Governor Jerry Brown claimed this $54 million dollar corruption “a first” in California.

    Ahhhhhh ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

    What about the Parks Dept top management, all 70 of them, who just got caught illegally granting themselves cash payments without the knowledge of State Human Resources which was required by State Law? THAT was the “first”… The $54 million slush fund was actually the “second” in just the last month.

    Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  2. pete says:

    It’s not a Dem/Repub thing, it’s a corrupt bunch of greedy pols that are rippping us off

    Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  3. Manuel says:

    Santa Rosa City School District is another corrupt office,they are letting this teacher who teaches special needs children who also likes to hit them get away with it. Now I ask you, is this corruption at it’s finest.

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  4. j galt says:

    The buck stops with GOV Moonbeam!

    Thumb up 9 Thumb down 3

  5. Steveguy says:

    CARB has a $680 Million budget. I wonder how much they are wasting and hoarding.

    Thumb up 17 Thumb down 0

  6. Stephen says:

    As if this wasn’t bad enough, remember when cities across the state did and still want to charge all of us for basic services like calling the police or fire department. Our tax dollars to to first go towards police, fire, infrastructure, yet Dems in California (can’t blame the Repubs because they have been out of the picture for a long time) want to tax us more for the services that were the original expenses of government in the first place.

    What we need to do is force the Federal and State Parks overseers to accept volunteers. I’m sure the parks will look and feel better. Instead, they waste the money and whenever there is a shortfall….getting volunteers in the parks is a negotiation…are you kidding!? They should be accepting volunteers with open arms.

    Thumb up 13 Thumb down 2

  7. Jean Anderson says:

    More proof of how stupid voters are to keep electing left-wing lairs and thieves who cry poor and demand higher taxes, and also how dishonest and corrupt government agencies are.

    This is the tip of the iceberg. The liberal Dems seek to make America an entitlement society, where everyone is dependent on government hand-outs, in order to gain and keep power for themselves.

    This is the very anti-thesis of what the United States stands for – self-reliance, entrepreneurship, lifting oneself up through education and hard work, and supporting charities and helping others with the financial fruits of our labors.

    Stop and think before you mindlessly vote for politicians the Founding Fathers would likely consider traitors to their cause.

    Thumb up 19 Thumb down 5

  8. Alice Krigel says:

    All of this is totally disgusting. The government hiding our tax money while at the same time threating to close parks, raise park fees and tell us there is nothing they can do because we don’t pay enough taxes to support our parks.

    These were lies and the state got caught by some investigative reporting, not in a state audit or state government investigation.

    How many other hidden tax accounts are out there?

    Yes, question the government whenever they tell you they need more taxes to fund their programs and if you don’t tax up, they will close the program down.

    This has been a clear lesson for how it all works our state and local government in California.

    Thumb up 23 Thumb down 0

  9. Snarky says:

    As a reminder, it was NOT Jerry Brown in his capacity as State Attorney General who discovered and exposed the financial corruption in Bell, California. It was the media that exposed that corruption.

    Most importantly, once the corruption was exposed, Attorney General Jerry Brown was silent for a full week.

    Do you think Governor Brown will still claim the State “needs” your vote for tax increases in November’s election?

    Thumb up 20 Thumb down 1

  10. Snarky says:

    Two things to ask:

    Did the State Parks accidentally hoard $54 million dollars due to incompetence.

    Or did the State Parks intentionally hoard the $54 million dollars as they lied to the public that they were “being forced” to close 70 state parks?

    Incompetence or criminality ?

    Either way, state and local government don’t need nor deserve tax increases of any kind. Their claim for a “need” for higher taxes is just another lie.

    Thumb up 21 Thumb down 0

  11. Sarkyfish says:

    “The signature characteristic of a leader is to take responsibility and to be held accountable for the organization they lead,” Ruth Coleman wrote. Gee, isn’t genius Jerry Brown her leader? The Mafia is controlled exclusively by criminals of Italian origin. Our state government is controlled exclusively by liberal Democrats.

    Thumb up 24 Thumb down 3

  12. ann says:

    The entire state parks commission should resign — they have never been anything but a dumping ground for rich contributors to the governor and how stupid is Sonoma County to hire one of the clowns as the director of parks can you say conflict of interest …the parks here used to be professionally managed before the supervisors got star struck and hired an incompetent celebrity who has done nothing but help keep her own views, bring casino gambling and obviously do nothing on the state level

    Thumb up 27 Thumb down 3

  13. C.J Seamans says:

    Makes you wonder what other state agency is hiding money we don’t know about, or the Federal governement at that!

    Thumb up 30 Thumb down 1

  14. Skippy says:

    “It’s just completely the most devastating news that I can imagine,” said Caryl Hart, Sonoma County’s regional parks director.”
    Take note.
    The primary beneficiary of the defunct new sales tax is crushed because a big brand new tax on everything you buy won’t be imposed.
    She should be thrilled that $54 million was discovered at the State level. It takes so much pressure off her County Dept.
    Instead she is devastated that you won’t have more of your hard-earned money consumed by her layer of Big Govt.
    I liked the private/public plans that were in process. Hopefully private foundations funded by benevolent citizens and wealthy capitalists(how the National Park system got built)can take over responsible permanent stewardship of many current Public parks.
    The Bohemians currently relaxing in our county have kept a 2,000 acre virgin redwood grove in shape for over a century. Not too bad. And they never asked your family for a dime.

    I trust them more than our current Big Govt Dept. heads.

    Thumb up 26 Thumb down 4

  15. Steveguy says:

    I have to note that I have been railing on closing the Parks for a ‘mere’ $22 Million shortfall to begin with. $22 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the waste and duplication that is our government. And why do we have a whole huge and or other many office buildings full of ‘Park Managers and Administrators’ ?? How much admin do you need to efficiently run the Parks ? We need to re-structure the bureaucracy. I could give many examples of local management with a small central ‘agencies’ in the private sector. Heck, small chain stores have far better financial reporting, and they don’t spend multi-millions on failed computer systems. Or large chain stores.

    So they make ‘ The Citizens and Park Lovers to UNITE ‘ to ‘save the parks’ causing tremendous efforts by many to scramble to do something that was not needed !

    The PLAN was to extort tax money, like closing libraries when they are a fairly minor budget item.

    When was the last time that you have heard about any useless Government Agency eliminated ? Not many, when by the actual State of California website, there are dozens of useless, reduntant and ‘under-performing’ agencies.

    Of course Noreen was in on it. Of course. really- The Huff-man too. And you all still vote for them, shame on you.

    Great thanks to the SacBee for this, I do believe some whistleblowers are contacting them. Will the Press Democrat do the same ? Nahhh, they are the cheerleaders for the lunatics that run our asylum. Oh my

    Thumb up 28 Thumb down 0

  16. bear says:

    This is appalling.

    Was she a republican appointee trying to appear frugal? Or not?

    That’s the key.

    No way one person could do all this. Try 10-20.

    The other key.

    Fry them.

    Thumb up 10 Thumb down 10

  17. Kay Tokerud says:

    Here’s the scam, create a artificial shortage (money), then do all sorts of things because of it. More taxes for us, $8 parking at the beach, and turning our public parks over to unaccountable non-profits. Twelve years of lying is what we know so far. One of the beneficiaries was going to be the Sonoma County Water Agency that always seems to have their fingers in the cookie jar. Remember when they were funneling money to Michael Allen for unnecessary work that he was busted for?

    This would still be unknown if they hadn’t gotten careless and been caught giving cash handouts for vacation pay. This is what happens when you have a virtual one party system. Using the “one rat theory” it stands to reason that where there’s one, there’s probably a lot more. Flush the incumbants out now and let’s give the other party a try. And I’m a Democrat.

    Thumb up 44 Thumb down 2

  18. MendoTech says:

    OUTRAGEOUS!!

    Why are Ruth Coleman & Mike Harris not under arrest? At a minimum, they are guilty of malfeasance of office, and very probably of embezzlement and other crimes. Same with the Parks Department’s budget and finance employees. They should all be the subjects on subpoenas and / or arrest warrants.

    Where are the state controller’s financial managers and (especially) auditors? Have they been paid off to look the other way, or are they just typical incompetent state employees drawing large salaries while putting in their time until they retire at even larger ‘salaries?’

    Why did Huffman and Evans, who are credited with considering these supposedly hidden moneys to fund the parks, not notice the large ‘hidden’ balance? How complicit are they in trying to fleece the taxpayers? This is a fine example of our totally out of control California State government.

    Notice also that our local politicians and bureaucrats, rather than expressing outrage and calling for criminal charges, mostly express disgust at not being able to go ahead with their plans to tax us again for what we have already paid for. Shame on top of shame!

    Thumb up 43 Thumb down 5

  19. Follower says:

    What really amazes me is that the sheeple WILL flock to the polls, completely confidant that this is just an anomaly, re-elect all the thieves AND VOTE FOR MORE TAXES!

    Thumb up 50 Thumb down 5

  20. svo says:

    Government officials — local, state, and country — scratch their pointy heads and wonder why voters don’t trust them.

    Thumb up 42 Thumb down 4

  21. Western Cluebird says:

    ….On Friday, he (Assemblyman Jared Huffman)said he was “distressed and upset” by the revelations that led to Coleman’s departure.
    “It is certainly a dark day for the trust and confidence that we need to have in our parks officials,” Huffman said. “It is hopefully the beginning of a serious reset that turns this agency around”

    On April 8, 2011 speaking at the Santa Rosa J.C. about the budget cuts and their impact on public education, Jared Huffman said “Why are we here and why does this feel like Deja Vu?” and “If there is a spending problem, I wish I could be a part of it”.
    Then he said “As we dealt with this crisis, we havn’t been entirely honest. We’ve used temporary borrowing, shifting and gimmicks. An 18 billion deficit was advertised as ballanced when actually it was about 7 billion short.”
    It is a 26 billion dollar crisis now.

    Seems like the Parks officials are not the only ones that need some serious reform.

    Thumb up 36 Thumb down 5

  22. Wilson says:

    “Huffman said he does not know the motivation behind keeping the money a secret. He and Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, took part in budget hearings this year in which the two funds in question were looked at as possible funding sources for state parks.”

    So Huffman and Evans knew about this hidden money and did nothing about it. Our politicians at work. And Huffman wants to go to Congress? Heaven help us.

    Thumb up 37 Thumb down 7

  23. @Grapevines says:

    “Just recently the Senate gave pay advances to about 100 of their staffers. Think any of that made the “liberal – I love the Democrats” press??”

    It did. Read the paper. By the way the Democrats are trying to follow what the Republicans already did. Which is outrageous.

    Thumb up 15 Thumb down 21

  24. Over Easy says:

    Ruth Coleman should be given a hero’s welcome! She saved 54 million of our hard earned tax dollars from being unnecessarily spent. That SHOULD be her job!, not to find a way to spend it.

    The State managers spending every penny just because they have it has broken the backs of the working class and business in California.

    The 54 million should be returned to the rightfully owners, we the tax payers. That’s about $1.50 per resident. Send me my check!

    Thumb up 23 Thumb down 20

  25. Grapevines says:

    GAQ

    What was the point you thought I was trying to point out?

    But watch the Legislature balk at having that happen and have it get relieved what they are really spending on what? Just recently the Senate gave pay advances to about 100 of their staffers. Think any of that made the “liberal – I love the Democrats” press??

    Thumb up 32 Thumb down 7

  26. GAJ says:

    @Grapevines, if a relatively small State agency can hide a $54 million slush fund from the eyes of the Public, can you imagine the dollars secreted away in even larger departments?

    Time to bring in some third party to go over all the agencies’ books line by line…give them 20% of anything they find, (up to a cap), and let them loose!

    This “irregularity” is just the tip of the iceberg methinks.

    Thumb up 57 Thumb down 3

  27. Grapevines says:

    Lets see if I got this correctly?

    Some honcho in Sacramento who is also part of the “governing body” for the state of California was caught in a lie about available funds. Check!

    All the other “honcho’s” in the state are pointing fingers elsewhere and saying that they didn’t know that!! Check!!

    Improper procedures were used to have taxpayer funds flow to state employees instead of using them for maintenance as they should have been; and keeping facilities open for the TAXPAYING PUBLIC to use and enjoy as it is supposed to be. Check!!!

    And for this we get a bullet train to nowhere and less funding for schools and colleges? Check!!!!

    Plus Gov. Moonbeam (the sequel) gets his tax and soak the citizens more measure put on the number one spot on the upcoming ballot. Check!!!!!

    Anything I missed??

    Thumb up 52 Thumb down 6

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