Saturday, July 21, 2012

Parks boss steps down over secret $54 million hidden from budget makers

Obviously, we need more transparency in government. Parks boss steps down over secret funds
The state discovered $54 million hidden from budget makers
By Ashly McGlone and Matt Clark
July 20, 2012

The discovery of $54 million stashed away in the state parks department has resulted in the resignation of the agency’s director and the firing of a top assistant.

The state is launching an agencywide audit of the parks department — and is reviewing all 560 special funds in the state budget, which hold upwards of $33.4 billion.

...“I am floored,” said Rick Barclay, chairman of the Friends of Palomar Mountain State Park, a group that spent the last year gathering donations to insure that one of the most popular local state parks in the county would remain open. “If that money really was there and could have been used to keep parks open, then we will all be scratching our heads wondering, why did we go through all that.”

Some 70 parks were threatened with closure this year in anticipation of $22 million in cuts to the department’s $364 million operating budget.

In late June the parks department announced that, at least for the time being, enough money had been found to keep all 70 parks open. Those included the San Pasqual Historic Battlefield museum near the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and two large state recreation areas in Imperial County: Salton Sea and Picacho on the Colorado River.

Bill Meister, president of the nonprofit Sea and Desert Interpretive Association which has been fighting to keep the Salton Sea State Recreation Area open, said he was shocked by the news.

“An awful lot of people — employees, lovers of the park — have had a lot of sleepless nights not knowing if they were going to have jobs or if the park would close,” he said. “We’ll have to see how this all plays out, but it doesn’t look good.”

State investigators in January began looking into a secret $271,000 vacation cashout program for parks staffers. Officials tapped the department’s new deputy director of administrative services, Aaron Robertson, to examine agency finances. He is credited with finding the hidden funds.

State investigators have determined that nearly $20.4 million, or 39 percent of the money in the State Parks and Recreation Fund, was not disclosed to state budget officials. Nearly $33.5 million, or 20 percent, of the money in the parks’ Off Highway Vehicle Fund was also not reported. Both accounts subsist on revenue from park visitor fees.

The finance department and the attorney general are reviewing whether criminal activity was involved in hiding the assets. Officials said preliminary findings suggest the reporting errors date back at least 12 years.

Ruth Coleman, state parks director for the last eight years, resigned Thursday, even as she said she had no knowledge of the hidden funds.

“I have always taken the public trust to heart and honored it and I am personally appalled to learn that our documents were not accurate,” Coleman wrote in her resignation letter to the governor.

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