"Our parks are closing! Our parks are closing!"
And so the terrible cry rose up from all of the would-be campers, nature-strollers, deer watchers, bird oglers and others drawn to our state parks. California was in deep deficit doo-doo, and 70 of our 278 parks had to close in order to save $22 million. Some of our Humboldt-area treasures were on the block.
The scramble by ordinary citizens, business owners, nonprofits and even the federal government to rescue most of these parks from closure should have brought tears to your eyes.
Now, of course, all we can is hear is a loud, collective snort of scorn and disbelief: For more than a decade, according to an investigation by the Sacramento Bee, the California State Parks department has been sitting on "nearly $54 million in surplus money." And nobody knew. Yes, there've been personnel changes since the pile of money was discovered. Notes the Bee:
Parks Director Ruth Coleman stepped down, and chief deputy Michael Harris was let go, amid questions about the underreported funds dating back 12 years, according to Clark Blanchard, a spokesman for the secretary of the Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the parks department.
The infuriating news nips at the heels of a previous Bee investigation into an unauthorized vacation buyout program at State Parks in which certain top employees sold back unused vacation time. Buybacks had been suspended since 2007 because of the budget -- so State Parks schemed to let buyouts happen secretly:
To avoid a paper trail, the buyout requests were submitted in some cases only on Post-It notes, not official forms, according to an internal parks department audit obtained by The Bee. ... The buyouts cost more than $271,000, said Richard Stapler, a spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the parks department. The money was spent even as the department was planning the unprecedented closure of 70 state parks due to budget cuts.
Hey -- who wants to go camping?!