By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Jesse Gorsuch had the morning off and miles of trails to explore on his mountain bike. Strapping on his helmet, he launched into Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa last week ready for some heart-racing fun.
That fun cost him nothing but sweat. The Sebastopol floor installer avoided paying a day-use fee of $7 by parking on Channel Drive outside the gated entrance to the park’s paid lot.
“I’m just a deadbeat,” he said.
He’s not the only one.
California’s Department of Parks and Recreation estimated that 43 million people paid nothing to enjoy one of the state’s 280 parks in 2011-12, the most recent year for which data is available. That equaled 64 percent of all park visitors that year.
Who pays and who doesn’t for access to the natural and historical wonders protected inside the state’s parks are key considerations amid calls to overhaul the 150-year-old parks system, an effort spawned by a major financial scandal involving the Parks Department in 2012 and perennial budget problems that threatened the closure of dozens of destinations.
Options that have been discussed for generating more revenue include opening up parks to more private enterprise, creating a dedicated funding source or allocating more money out of the state’s general fund, now that California’s financial health has improved.
But it’s the idea of asking people to pay more through fees that has sparked the most attention and controversy.
Some see significant revenue potential by implementing new fees, charging for new park amenities or by improving fee collection systems at parks where people already are supposed to pay but in many instances don’t, such as at Annadel. Such proposals face fierce opposition in some communities, including on the North Coast, where the Parks Department is seeking to expand day-use fees at more than a dozen beaches.
Others argue that Californians already support parks by paying taxes. Increasing or expanding fees, critics say, could turn more people away from the gates, undermining efforts to meet the growing public demand for affordable, outdoor recreation spots.
The battle is shaping up in Sacramento, where a blue-ribbon commission created by the state Legislature is weighing recommendations. The overarching goal is the transformation of the state’s sprawling network of 280 parks into a modern, integrated system that takes advantage of current technology and bolsters partnerships between public and private entities.
Under this vision, park visitors could pay day-use fees using debit or credit cards and navigate parks using wireless Internet and digital trail maps. There also would be more lodging for overnight stays and transportation options for getting to and around parks.
But the key hurdle remains how to pay for it all, while also covering the day-to-day expenses of the park system, which has a maintenance backlog estimated at $1 billion.
How best to manage the money is another consideration, after the financial scandal two years ago exposed mismanagement and financial chicanery at the highest levels of the Parks Department. Media reports revealed that the department was stockpiling millions of dollars at a time when the state was threatening to close dozens of parks because of budget cuts. The department currently is without a top executive for the second time in two years.
“It’s one thing to come up with a bunch of good ideas, or maybe even put them in (law). But getting this state agency that has been going a certain way for the last 100 years in a new direction is part of the challenge,” said North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.
Huffman co-authored legislation as a member of the state Assembly that led to Parks Forward, the commission that is formulating recommendations for overhauling the operation and oversight of the Parks Department. The 12-member group, which includes people with backgrounds in business, nonprofit agencies, academia and public service, has been holding meetings across the state to gather input. Its final recommendations are due in October.
The group’s draft report states that California’s park system is “debilitated by an outdated organizational structure, underinvestment in technology and business tools and a culture that has not rewarded excellence, innovation and leadership.” It goes on to state that only “broad-based, fundamental change” can correct the deficiencies.
The stated goals of the overhaul include bringing better accounting methods and more transparency to the state parks system, increasing revenue and improving access to parks, in particular for lower-income Californians who reside in urban communities.
Caryl Hart, a member of the commission and Sonoma County’s Regional Parks director, called the effort a “turning point” for a state bureaucracy that doesn’t have a particularly stellar track record of implementing change.
“There is a very strong recognition that past efforts have resulted in plans staying on the shelf, or maybe things changing in the short-term,” Hart said.
Vicky Waters, a state Parks Department spokeswoman, said the agency is “continuing to work to regain the public’s trust.” She said the department already has instituted a number of initiatives aimed at generating revenue, including a new marketing division to oversee business development, concessions and park passes.
The Parks Department also is seeking to expand day-use fees at 14 Sonoma Coast beaches, despite loud protests from local officials and many county residents.
The agency appealed Sonoma County’s rejection of the fee proposal to the California Coastal Commission, which could override local concerns and implement the plan. The state is seeking permission to install self-pay machines at 14 beaches in Sonoma Coast State Park and Salt Point State Park and charge visitors $7 for parking. Officials argue the fees are needed to maintain or restore services on the Sonoma Coast and to fulfill a legislative mandate for the Parks Department to develop new sources of revenue.
This year, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature allocated one-time increases of $40 million for maintenance needs and $14 million for the Parks Department to use for existing services.
The agency’s budget of about $428 million for this fiscal year includes $161 million from the parks and recreation fund, a year-over-year increase of $40 million that is largely dependent on collection of user fees.
The fiscal target reflects the pressure the agency is under to increase its revenue. It’s unclear that it is going to be able to meet the goal.
A California Research Bureau report commissioned by state lawmakers found that if the Parks Department collected $2 from each of the estimated day-use visitors who do not pay, it would generate $86 million in additional revenue for the system.
The figure is based on the 2011-12 park visitor totals, which officials acknowledge probably is inaccurate. Among other things, the data failed to factor in visitors who had purchased annual passes, or kids who visited with schools. Parks Forward, in its tentative recommendations, has called for a complete upgrade of the park system’s accounting systems.
But even inflated, the visitor numbers reflect the reality that most people enjoy California’s parks without paying a fee. The Research Bureau report advocates a financial model whereby most, if not all, state park visitors would pay a fee, with varying prices based on the level of services and amenities available in each park. The money would stay in the district where it was collected, unlike the current practice of pooling money in a statewide fund.
Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, last week amended one of his bills to require the Parks Department to implement technology at remote parks, those without staffed entrances or those with many points of entry in an effort to collect more fees. Rendon is chairman of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee.
The proposed legislation specifies allowing people to purchase park passes, either at home or at parks via smartphones. The bill is among several proposals floating about the state Capitol that seek to expand the use of technology in state parks, ostensibly to make it easier for visitors to pay and for the system to collect revenue.
But it’s unclear how Rendon’s bill would prevent people from continuing to access parks without paying, if all it does is encourage them to buy a pass. Nor does it address concerns about having to pay to access parks that offer few amenities, an issue that’s been raised with the state’s controversial proposal to expand fees along the Sonoma Coast.
“The scenario remains the same,” former Sonoma County supervisor Ernie Carpenter said. “There needs to be something on the other side of the kiosk that people are paying for. If it’s paying for parking, a sunset or a toilet, that’s not good enough.”
Hart stressed that Parks Forward isn’t focused on fees as a new revenue source for parks. The commission’s 29-page draft report barely mentions fees, and only then in the context of improving collection methods.
“It’s just not realistic to expect everyone that goes to a park to pay,” Hart said. “I think it’s a great idea in the abstract, but on the ground, I don’t see how you execute that.”
Parks Forward is tentatively recommending a dedicated funding source for the parks system without specifying where the money would come from. Hart said there’s a “strong likelihood” that California voters will be asked to support new funding for parks in the near future, possibly in the form of bond money.
Huffman said the Parks Department should use the authority it already has to establish peak-demand pricing on certain days and at certain parks where it’s warranted, and to implement a license plate program dedicated to raising revenue for parks. He said the parks’ reservation system is “archaic and expensive” and needs to be replaced.
Huffman did not express flat-out opposition to the Parks Department seeking to expand fees on the coast. But he said the agency would have to demonstrate that it could do so without violating the state’s 1976 Coastal Act, which encourages “maximum access” to beaches.
“I think state parks is going to have to be very careful about not pricing people out with user fees,” Huffman said.
State Sen. Noreen Evans, another co-author of the legislation spawning Parks Forward, last week reiterated her staunch opposition to fee expansion, saying she considers it a barrier to access.
The Santa Rosa Democrat described growing up poor and going on family camping vacations at state parks.
“If it had been priced out of our reach, I wouldn’t have grown up with an appreciation for California’s splendor, and there are a lot of kids like that,” she said.
Evans advocates using more money from the state’s general fund to support state parks. She said making park passes affordable or increasing car registration fees by as little as $20 also could generate revenue.
Annadel is emblematic of the challenges the state faces collecting fees. The 5,000-acre park’s many unofficial entrances and lax enforcement at the only paid lot make it easy to avoid paying.
One man who parked outside the gate said he “felt guilty” for doing so. “I know fees help sustain the park,” the man said, declining to give his name.
Ivan Hall, who last week joined Gorsuch, the mountain biker, at the park, mistakenly thought he’d already paid because he purchased an annual pass from Sonoma County Regional Parks. That arrangement was only the case last year when the county temporarily operated Annadel.
“I think people would be happy to pay if it was easily understood (how to),” he said.
Hart said she would like the Parks Department to operate similar to the way Sonoma County manages its parks, using a membership-based model with incentives for joining. An annual membership to the county’s parks costs $69 and includes a free night of camping, plus 12 months of free parking and a week’s membership at the YMCA.
“That’s the kind of approach the state needs to take,” Hart said.
Push for public-private park partnerships prompts concerns
Wal-Mart State Park?
While observers call such a notion far-fetched in California, recommendations that state parks align more closely with nonprofit agencies and private organizations has fueled concerns about mission creep into public spaces.
Parks Forward, a commission that is considering the future of California’s natural and historical treasures, is tentatively recommending the California Department of Parks and Recreation work more cooperatively with outside organizations to bring stability and generate revenue.
Such proposals resonate in Sonoma County, where several state parks are being managed by nonprofit groups, a situation stemming from California’s budget crisis when parks were threatened with closure. These parks include Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park near Kenwood and Armstrong Redwoods and Austin Creek State Recreation Area in Guerneville.
Parks Forward is recommending creation of a new nonprofit to support the parks department statewide, assisting with everything from designing state-of-the-art fee collection machines to increasing business development opportunities such as hosting special events in parks and partnering with community groups for preservation of historic sites.
The nonprofits operating parks in Sonoma County already are doing many of those things, their leaders note.
“We want to make sure there’s not a duplication of effort, or a weakening of the effort of the nonprofits that are fulfilling roles with state parks right now,” said Michele Luna, executive director of Stewards of the Coast and Redwood, which operates Armstrong Redwoods and Austin Creek.
Others express concern that expanding private enterprise in parks is a slippery slope to privatizing public spaces.
“It’s very hard to take a natural resource and turn it into a for-profit center without destroying the beauty of that natural resource,” Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, said.
“You also can’t do it without cutting off access to people who don’t have a lot of money,” she said.
However, Caryl Hart, a member of Parks Forward and Sonoma County Regional Parks director, said commission members are “united in their opposition” to privatizing state parks.
“There’s no pressure for that,” she said.
(You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or email@example.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.)