On March 25, California’s Little Hoover Commission issued a report urging a new operating model. Failure to take action would continue the trend of declining commitment and vision for the state’s historic and recreation sites, the commission warned Gov. Jerry Brown.
The 122-page report, “Beyond Crisis: Recapturing Excellence in California’s State Park System,” which outlines the principals of the new operating model, was evoked by recent financial problems affecting the park system. Initially, the state parks department was proposing to close 70 units because of a $22 million budget cut. Then last summer, more than $50 million of unknown cash in the department’s accounts was discovered. Consequently, public trust in the agency has diminished.
The commission recommends the governor and legislature consider the following new principles: shared management, innovation, greater transparency and the expectation that it will generate more revenue from its operations.
A new park system vision could be implemented if operating procedures were similar to 21st century enterprises. This would include financial and personnel practices that support the new vision as well as transparency for the public.
One of the first steps the commission recommends is “a public, top-to-bottom assessment of the parks in its collection to determine which have clear statewide significance and which parks serve primarily local or regional populations. Those parks determined to serve primarily local or regional needs should be realigned.”
State funding has not kept up with the system’s expansion, the commission concluded. In 1979, state funding was 91 percent of the department’s revenue, last year it was 22 percent. The appropriate state funding level will be dependent upon the size of the system, which is why the commission has recommended a review.
“None of California’s state parks generate enough fee revenue to pay their total costs of operations, maintenance and infrastructure upgrades, even popular and crowded sites such as Hearst Castle. Smaller historical sites, however important to the California story, draw nowhere near the same number of visitors, and cannot cover even their labor costs,” the commission reported.
In 2008, as California’s economic downturn deepened, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed California’s state parks on its list of the nation’s “11 Most Endangered Historic Places,” because of deterioration, neglect and poor public policy.
Partnership agreements with various entities can assure these units remain available for public access. But current financial systems do not support an effective and efficient process which must manage local costs and apply local revenue sources.
The commission argues that negative public reaction to the closed development of the list of proposed park unit closures could be addressed through a public review of the whole system. Recent legislation, A.B. 1478 and 1589, both direct the department to develop a plan to increase state park revenues as well as broaden public oversight and input.
The commission is also concerned about current personnel practices, which stress law enforcement background and experience in order to advance to management and senior officials.
While important, the commission says, “This has contributed to a department culture that emphasizes public safety and law enforcement above the needs of other vital resources, cultural and historic issues at the core of the department’s mission.”
The Little Hoover Commission is an independent state oversight agency. By statute, the commission is a bipartisan board. In creating the commission in 1962, the legislature declared its purpose “to secure assistance for the governor and itself in promoting economy, efficiency and improved services in the transaction of the public business in the various departments … making the operation of all state departments, agencies and instrumentalities, and all expenditures of public funds, more directly responsive to the wishes of the people.” Recommendations often take the form of legislation, which the commission supports through the legislative process.