SACRAMENTO — The latest investigation into financial mismanagement at the state Department of Parks and Recreation shows that its administrators do not even know much it costs to operate each of California’s more than 270 parks, yet another symptom of a flawed organization that kept millions of dollars hidden even as it sought to close parks to save money.
Parks officials had no way of knowing how much money the state would have saved by following their own recommendation to close 70 parks last year, according to an audit released Thursday. The proposed closures were the department’s way of helping the state address its budget deficit.
The report by state Auditor Elaine Howle was part of an investigation into $54 million discovered last summer in two special funds and reveals that the hidden cash was but one sign of wider mismanagement.
Department administrators estimated the operating costs for individual parks based on geographic regions using 10-year-old figures. The audit said that even newer estimates provided since the scandal broke were inconsistent.
“Without updated and complete estimates of the costs to operate each park, it is difficult to accurately estimate the amount the department would save by closing a given park, and to measure the impact of partnership agreements that provide funding to help pay parks’ operating costs and offset the effects of budget reductions,” the audit said.
The department oversees more than 270 park properties, including state beaches, state historic parks and off-highway vehicle parks. It has a budget of nearly $574 million in the current fiscal year, money that comes from the state general fund, various bond funds, user fees and off-highway vehicle registration fees.
The actual amount intentionally hidden in the State Parks and Recreation Fund was $20 million, and the remaining $34 million discrepancy was due to differences in the timing of the fund reports to the state finance department and the controller’s office. The amount of money kept hidden had grown as high as $29 million in 2003, the attorney general’s office has reported.
Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned and a senior department official was fired last summer.
Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Maj. Gen. Anthony Jackson as parks director last November. Department spokesman Roy Stearns said Jackson was not available for comment Thursday.
In a written statement, the department said it is developing a new budget that will include specific operating costs for each park.
Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, has been critical of how the department chose the 70 parks that would have been closed. She said Howle’s audit confirms concerns about the closures, which were avoided after Brown allocated some additional money and the state reached agreements with nonprofits, local governments and others to help keep the properties open at least for a few years.
“Obviously things were not managed properly,” Evans said. “It’s been a rough two years trying to investigate what’s going on. I’m happy to see the auditor has uncovered a lot of what I suspected or found out myself. But we have a lot to do to restore the public trust.”
Carolyne Cathey saw the department’s tangled budgeting firsthand when her group, the Mendocino Area Parks Association, tried to put together proposals to keep open eight of the parks scheduled for closure. One complication was overlap within the department.
“Rangers might be spending time at more than one park. They buy a lot of their supplies collectively, and gas for their fleets,” she said. “As a result, it made it difficult to come up with realistic numbers.”
In a report released in January, the state attorney general found that officials at the highest level of the parks department helped keep the millions of dollars secret for more than a decade, a finding reiterated in the report released Thursday by the Bureau of State Audits.
The audit said several budget officers brought their concerns about discrepancies in the fund balances to top officials. But they were told to continue misreporting the amount of money in the special funds because administrators were afraid the department’s budget would be cut if lawmakers and the governor knew the true figure.
The auditor recommended the parks department establish detailed procedures that compare year-end financial statements and ensure that the ending fund balances reported to the governor’s budget and state controller’s budget are the same.
She also recommended that officials determine how much it costs to fully operate its parks and must document its calculations to ensure that they include all costs associated with their operation.