Wildflowers in bloom at Anza Borrego state park, which straddles San Diego and Imperial counties in Southern California. Anza Borrego is one of 278 state parks in California that has recently been threatened with closure or drastically reduced services while the State Parks' Director was sitting on $54 million in undisclosed or underreported funds.California State Parks Director Ruth Coleman stepped down and her second-in-command was fired after it was learned that the agency had been sitting on an unreported surplus of $54 million that had been accumulating over the last decade.
The funds were discovered shortly after the Sacramento Bee published an investigative report and internal audits from the California Department of Parks and Recreation regarding an unauthorized vacation buyout program among senior Parks officials that was thought to have cost the Golden State $271,000.
Much of the hidden money was discovered in a controversial Off Road Vehicle fund. Since late last year, off-roading advocates have accused the governor and state agencies of stacking the Parks and Recreation department with personnel hostile towards off-roaders.
The disclosure comes at a particularly awkward time for Gov. Jerry Brown, who has been campaigning for statewide ballot measures supporting tax increases that will be voted on in November. Earlier, Brown had said that as many as 70 California State Parks could be shuttered due to the agency running out of funds.
Officials tapped the department’s new deputy director of administrative services, Aaron Robertson, to examine agency finances. He is credited with finding the hidden funds.A number of donors who contributed to the state parks system before the hidden money was disclosed are now asking for their money back, claiming they were under the impression that their fundraising was the only thing keeping the parks open as the agency sat on more than $50 million in funds.
State investigators have determined that nearly $20.4 million, or 39 percent of the money in the State Parks and Recreation Fund, was not disclosed to state budget officials. Nearly $33.5 million, or 20 percent, of the money in the parks’ Off Highway Vehicle Fund, was also not reported. Both accounts subsist on revenue from park visitor fees.
The finance department and the attorney general are reviewing whether criminal activity was involved in hiding the assets. Officials said preliminary findings suggest the reporting errors date back at least 12 years.
Earlier this year, it was learned that funds raised by the state of California to go to a September 11th memorial fund through the sale of special license plates was raided by both the Brown and Schwarzenegger administrations to plug shortfalls in the state's budget.