Declaring California’s park system—heretofore regarded as one of the world’s greatest—“irretrievably broken,” the independent Little Hoover Commission has recommended that the state chuck the old model and turn to the private sector for a makeover.
The Department of Parks and Recreation has been under fire since a scandal last summer revealed that it had stashed away $20 million in an untouched fund while a state budget crisis threatened to force closure of 70 parks. The parks director resigned and the Legislature froze all park closures for two years while it figured out what to do with the department.
Just about all 70 of the parks were saved before the hidden funds were found, using the generosity of donors and through special arrangements with private and nonprofit organizations. The Little Hoover Commission wants to build on that experience by bringing the private sector into “shared management initiatives.”
The commission report identified a number of problems with the “obsolete” old model: inadequate staffing, more parks than could be managed, an “outdated self-view,” a centralized bureaucracy and a bad attitude about working with outsiders. And the state was trying to run parks that should be turned over to local control.
It also noted that the parks department has been starved for cash.
“General Fund support has fallen for nearly 35 years,” it lacks a “revenue-driven model” and it does not have “adequate operating revenue to support its added size” from bond-borrowing expansion. Last year’s “$22 million budget cut marked the tipping point.”
Essentially, the commission dinged the department for being an underfunded public institution that was given a mandate to protect the park system but inadequate money to accomplish the task. The commission concluded that, rather than provide that funding, the state should shed a bunch of parks, encourage innovative partnerships with moneyed interests and share the decision-making process on stewardship of the park system, a public trust, with them.
The state has been edging in that direction for years, and apparently the department staff didn’t like it. “The department has an outdated self-view that regards outside organizations as helpers instead of full-fledged partners,” the commission said.
“A department culture built around preservation, protection and public safety finds change and working with outside partners difficult,” the report concluded.
The commission said the state has a two-year window of opportunity to change that.