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California parks face a $54-million question

California state government is facing a rare question -- what to do with extra money.

On Friday, officials announced that the parks department had a hidden $54-million surplus that had accumulated over 12 years. On most occasions, finding more money is good news. But the discovery raised serious questions about accounting practices, because the state was soliciting donations to prevent park closures while the surplus went seemingly unnoticed.

Gov. Jerry Brown has signaled that he wants to use the money to make sure the state doesn't shutter its natural and historical sites. He had originally planned to close 70 parks this year to save $22 million, but most were saved by private donors, nonprofits and other government agencies.

"We'll work with the Legislature to see how this funding can be used to mitigate park closures," said Elizabeth Ashford, a spokesperson for the governor.

There's plenty of need for more money in the parks system, which administration officials say has a $1.3-billion maintenance backlog.

The administration has also begun a full audit of the parks department. That process could take a few months, said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for Brown's Department of Finance.

The parks director, Ruth Coleman, resigned after the surplus was revealed, although she claimed to be unaware of it. An investigation is underway to determine who knew about it and what went wrong, and lawmakers have called for hearings into the matter next month.

ALSO:

California parks donors furious over hidden surplus

California parks department finds $54-million surplus

Resigning parks director "appalled" to learn of hidden surplus

-- Chris Megerian in Sacramento
twitter.com/chrismegerian

 
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