California parks had $54 million hidden surplus, officials say
California's park system secretly stashed away $54 million even though it was cutting services and threatening to close parks, officials announced Friday, and the department's director resigned as the hidden surplus was revealed.
The announcement means the department has plenty of cash, even though it's been soliciting hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations in what was thought to be a desperate scramble to keep parks open.
"We will get to the bottom of this situation,” said a statement from secretary John Laird of the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the parks department.
Officials said the department has underreported tens of millions of dollars for the last 12 years. News of the surplus was first reported by the Sacramento Bee.
The Attorney General's office is also conducting an investigation, said spokeswoman Lynda Glendhill.
Ruth Coleman, the director who resigned, has worked for the parks department since 1999. Her second in command was fired.
“It’s devastating,” said Caryl Hart, chair of the state parks commission. “I feel like a victim."
Janelle Beland, the number two official at the California Natural Resources Agency, will replace Coleman as interim director.
The state planned to close 70 parks this month to save $22 million, but almost all of them were kept open because of partnerships with other government agencies, private donors and nonprofit groups.
State officials say they'll now conduct a full audit of the department and see if the hidden money can be used to mitigate park closures.
-- Chris Megerian and Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento
Photo: A park official closes the gate to Providence Mountains State Recreation Area in the Mojave Desert. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times