California Has a Private Plan for Its Public Parks

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

California is proud of its 150-year-old public parks tradition, which has served as a model for the rest of the nation. But after years of underfunding, the system has fallen on hard times.

Facilities, staffing and services have eroded, as an aging bureaucracy with creaky technology and diminished political and popular support declines. In 2012, when California’s budget crisis threatened to close 70 parks, one-fourth of them, the state turned to private resources for assistance and received it.

The effort built on public-private partnerships that had evolved as public financial support waned. General fund support for parks has dropped 37% in the past five years. But when the budget crisis hit, the Legislature leaped into action and created a blue-ribbon commission to re-imagine the Department of Parks and Recreation and the entire system—with enhanced participation from the private sector.

Last week, the commission released its draft plan (pdf), which built on principles it had enunciated months before. The 40-page report was greeted enthusiastically by Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird, who noted that the department was “already implementing a modernized payment system and other technological advances addressed here.”

The draft plan does not tinker around the edges. It wants to eradicate “a culture that has not adequately rewarded collaboration, excellence and innovation” and starts by recommending that top leadership positions no longer be restricted to people with peace officer certification.

Right now, the parks department is without a permanent director. Retired Major General Anthony Jackson, who took over in November 2012 after financial scandals helped drive his predecessor out, stepped down after 18 months. 

The department should get “state-of-the-art processes and technology,” the report says. Employees should be trained to use “new systems.” Accounting, budgeting, asset management, personnel management—everything should change. After all, the parks department still relies on paper time cards to pay its employees.

Of course, all those changes cost money and it could be argued that if the department had been properly funded all along, some of those changes would already have taken place. But it wasn’t, and the draft plan suggests new ways to raise funds.   

The report recommends creation of a nonprofit California Parks Conservancy to round up financial support from donors. It calls for a stable funding structure with “effective fee-collection systems” while encouraging more entrepreneurial schemes.

Some critics worry about “public parks with private operators,” the substitution of corporate and community control for state management.

Warren Meyer, a libertarian who runs a company that manages parks and campgrounds, wrote admirably in Forbes last year of California efforts to capture “revenue opportunities.” However, the state had done so well at “mining” those that “the low-hanging fruit is gone,” he wrote.

Meyer told a couple of California state lawmakers that they might be able to add a few million dollars to the department’s $400 million budget, but the real savings—by an order of magnitude—would be in slashing salaries and other personnel costs. The legislators told him that it was politically unrealistic to expect lawmakers to do that and he agreed.

That is what blue-ribbon commissions are for.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

UCLA Faculty Voice: A Road Map to the Future of State Parks (by Jon Christensen, UCLA Newsroom Op-Ed)

California's Parks System in Need of Major Revamp, Commission Finds (by Mike Roe with A Martínez, KPCC)

How Will California’s Parks Do Under Private Management? (by Steve Sexton, Freakonomics)

Privatization and Private vs. Public Profits (by Warren Meyer, Forbes)

Director of Embattled California Parks Department Quits after Just 18 Months (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Parks Forward: A Plan for a Vibrant, Sustainable Park System for California (pdf)

Parks Forward Commission Draft Plan Calls for Fundamental Changes to California State Parks System (pdf)

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