California parks donors furious over hidden surplus
John Laird, who leads the California Natural Resources Agency, expressed regret on Friday for a sweeping fund-raising effort to preserve state parks even though the department responsible for them had socked away $54 million in unreported revenue.
“I’m deeply disappointed and feel truly sorry for everyone who was involved without this being known," Laird said.
Officials originally said that 70 parks would need to close this month because of budget cuts. Closures were averted because donors, nonprofits and other government agencies stepped forward with additional funding.
Some of those donors reacted angrily Friday when they learned that the parks system had a hidden surplus that has accumulated for at least a dozen years.
"It disgusts me," said Myra Hilliard, who donated and helped raise money for the Pio Pico State Historic Park in Whittier. "Is anybody honest about anything anymore? Here we are working so hard to keep the park open and they have all this money they aren’t telling us about."
Hilliard said elementary school students even held a bake sale to raise $120 after being told the park might close. The park costs $80,000 to keep open for one year.
Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation, called Friday’s news “truly disturbing and appalling.”
However, she noted that the parks system still has a severe budget problem. State funding has declined in recent years, and there’s $1.3 billion in maintenance work that has gone undone.
The surplus "doesn’t prevent the crisis that is currently underway. It may help minimize it,” Goldstein said. “This money will not solve the overall parks crisis that has been building for decades.”
-- Chris Megerian and Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento
Photo: John Laird, who leads the California Natural Resources Agency, testifies in the Capitol in 2008 when he was an assemblyman. Credit: Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press