By Dave Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
With a July 1 deadline looming over a budget-cutting plan that would close some 70 of the 270 state parks, two state senators are proposing an alternative that could keep about 50 of the parks open.
A Senate budget subcommittee chaired by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, will consider a bill coauthored by Sen. Simitian and Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, to reallocate up to $41 million to cover a $22 million shortfall in the state Parks & Recreation Department's budget for the current and next fiscal years, and provide reliable funding for several years to come.
The proposal would tap $10 million annually for five years from a clean-water revolving loan fund and from a $500 million reserve for motor vehicle license fee revenues, and up to $21 million every year in perpetuity from a fund earmarked for trail and off-highway-vehicle purposes.
State parks are in financial trouble in part because they receive about 20 percent of what they need annually for road maintenance, the senators said in a statement. Twenty of the parks also have deferred maintenance needs of $1.3 billion for water, wastewater and septic systems.
But conserving operating funds is not the answer, Sen. Simitian said in a May 8 teleconference with Sen. Evans. The proposal to close 70 parks was "fundamentally ill-conceived, penny-wise and pound-foolish, (and) irreversible," he said.
A closed park has higher risks for criminal activity, wildfire and possible lawsuits over injuries. "It's a false economy," he said.
Parks also generate important revenue for local businesses. Of the 70 parks, 20 are located in Sen. Evans' North Coast district, which includes Humboldt, Lake, Mendocino, and Napa counties. Two nearby parks made the shutdown list: Portola Redwoods State Park in La Honda and Castle Rock State Park just west of Saratoga in Santa Clara County.
"The state has never closed a state park, not even in the Great Depression," Sen. Evans said. In fact, she said, during the Depression the state opened Anza Borrego Desert State Park in eastern San Diego County.
Exactly which parks would close under the Simitian plan has not been determined and is a matter for the Parks Department. Factors include historical significance, visitor count, the net savings that would result from closing a park, and the level of difficulty in keeping visitors out, according to an online summary.
The number of visitors statewide has been consistent in recent years, but during hard economic times, parks are important as a low-cost way to get away and relax, Sen. Evans said.
Eighteen of the listed parks have collaborative arrangements in place with federal agencies or nonprofits that would keep them open, eight more are in negotiations for such arrangements, Sen. Evans said.
To reach the governor's desk for signature, the bill will need simple majorities in the Senate and the Assembly, Sen. Simitian said. Asked if he anticipated opposition, he said it was too early to tell but that "we've tried very hard" to design a bill that avoids political confrontations.
California is known for its parks and the idea of closing 70 of them, "I think a lot of people find incomprehensible," he said.
"We are using existing revenues in a relatively modest way to avoid the cuts," he added. "Our goal is to get past the year-to-year crisis in management of state parks. ... I am cautiously optimistic."