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$54 million-plus Parks Dept. surplus: What to spend on?

July 24, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
What to do with the $54-million surplus in the California State Parks Department that was secretly hidden away and recently discovered? Will it be used to keep dozens of parks open? The answer is not all that simple.

California's state park system is still reeling from Friday's scandal, when administrators revealed $54 million had been found sitting in an account undetected for the last 12 years.

Supporters just spent the last year raising money to save 70 parks from closing due to budget cuts. The surplus now is touching off a money grab because Parks doesn't necessarily get to keep the money.

"No department gets to keep, technically gets to keep this money," said Richard Stapler, a spokesman for the California Resources Agency. "These are taxpayer funds and ultimately it is the decision of the Legislature on how the money is to be spent."

About $33.5 million is in the Off Highway Trust Fund, which is not supposed to be spent on anything else, but the Legislature is known to raid all accounts no matter what it's for.

The other $20 million-plus could be reallocated for any purpose.

Supporters say Parks should get to keep their stash because some locations have only enough donations to stay open for a few more weeks, plus all 278 parks could use some help.

"The Department of Parks has been cut on a state level for the last 30 years. It is basically operating on a bare-bones budget," said Jim Metropulos, a Sierra Club spokesperson. "There is a backlog of maintenance work of $1.3 billion. They should be able to keep the money."

But every year during the Great Recession, state programs had to endure deep budget cuts. This year alone, welfare limits were cut from four years to two, and fewer slots for subsidized childcare were available for low-income mothers.

The Parks surplus could be used to back off on some of the cuts.

"If they haven't used it in 12 years, it should go to other services that have received the most cuts recently, like the welfare service and childcare," said California resident Collette Tiemeyer, who supports social services.

And college students who've seen tuition skyrocket say don't forget about them.

"Why spend all the $54 million on the park when you can do it separately? Put some in the park, maybe put some of it for financial aid," said Isaiah Salinas, a community college student.

Governor Brown's office hopes lawmakers will agree to use some of that surplus for Parks, but Democratic leaders have always said they'd restore some social services whenever there was extra money.

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