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GOLIS: The $54 million injustice

In regard to the $54 million unreported state parks surplus, Gov. Jerry Brown joked last week, "Hallelujah! More money is better than less money.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published: Sunday, July 29, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 29, 2012 at 8:25 a.m.

Gov. Jerry Brown wanted to pretend it was no big deal. About the $54 million state parks surplus that went unreported for a dozen years, Brown joked Wednesday, “Hallelujah! More money is better than less money.”

Nice try. This particular dance is what we expect from a politician who hopes voters will approve a tax measure in November. But Brown knows the political damage is done.

Anyone who worked to support parks in Sonoma County (or even wrote columns in support of local parks) knows the feeling. People feel disheartened. There is a sense of betrayal.

Consider Deb McGauley's letter to the editor on Thursday. The Santa Rosa woman recounted how her family contributed money to the state for a picnic table that honors her parents' memory.

That picnic table is located at a state beach now closed nine months a year, supposedly because the state parks department was broke.

Then McGauley opens the newspaper last week to learn that the department is sitting on $54 million. (The San Jose Mercury News on Friday reported that two groups who made large donations are asking for their money back — or a commitment that the $54 million will be spent on parks.)

In her Close to Home commentary, also on Thursday, Lauren Dixon, deputy director of the Parks Alliance for Sonoma County, reminded us that state government has managed to deliver us the worst of both worlds. The financial problems for state parks will continue, but it will now be more difficult to solve them.

“We remain faced with the same question,” Dixon wrote. “What happens next year and 10 years from now? We need a sustainable solution to support our parks.”

“We were on the brink of doing something transformative in Sonoma County when this happened,” Caryl Hart, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks, told the Sacramento Bee. “This has so many layers of destruction.”

Dixon and Hart have been leaders in efforts to create a new model for managing and sustaining parks in Sonoma County.

“This has been an outrage to the public, and we feel outraged as well,” Carolyn Schoff, president of the California League of Parks Associations, told the Associated Press. “Even if the money is returned back, it's not resolving the crisis, and now the public trust has been betrayed.”

Somehow, state government accomplished what seemed impossible, which is to make Californians even less trusting of government than they were before.

Within hours of the first reports, Sonoma County officials pulled the plug on consideration of a November tax measure in support of parks. No one wanted to be caught asking voters to bail out a state government that claimed to be broke and wasn't.

The damage, of course, won't be limited to state parks. How many times have we heard groups complain that government has plenty of money?

You don't need more taxes, they say, you have lots of money.

You could repair all those roads, save parks and restore schools, pay higher salaries and do a hundred other things, they say, if you really wanted to do them.

For all those folks, the $54 million in unreported assets becomes the latest excuse for opposing almost everything (except the expenditures important to them). Hey, government has the money somewhere, and besides, it can't be trusted.

Deep down, people may know that this $54 million fiasco doesn't mean that government is flush. Sadly, no one can argue that state government has demonstrated over the last decade that it can be trusted.

And it's too bad because — in case you hadn't noticed — there's work to do if California is to remain prosperous.

School performance is declining. Highways and roads are falling apart. There are issues related to water resources, climate change, energy reliability and — God knows — financial reform in government.

Unfortunately, state government keeps finding ways to remind us that it isn't trustworthy — launching yet another assault on the optimism necessary to save parks and do a thousand other things.

It would be pleasant to believe that one day soon the governor and Legislature will be able to make the hard decisions necessary to restore the state's confidence in the future.

Sonoma County should be proud that community groups managed to spare five local parks from the state's closure list. Those 25 nonprofit groups shouldn't second-guess their efforts, now or ever.

But their task becomes harder now — and yes, it is a terrible injustice.

Voters are right to be outraged, but outrage needs to be channeled toward constructive ends. This is the time to insist that politicians create financial controls that don't allow $54 million to go unreported. This is the time to insist that state government becomes more efficient and responsive and relevant.

This is not the time to let outrage become an excuse to turn away in disgust, leaving California (and its parks) to drift toward mediocrity.

(Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.)

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