Secret stash

Local fundraisers react to the State Parks scandal

Maria Phillips and others who have worked as fundraisers to help keep State Parks sites open were shocked by news that the department had millions of dollars hidden away.

Maria Phillips and others who have worked as fundraisers to help keep State Parks sites open were shocked by news that the department had millions of dollars hidden away.

Photo By ken smith

Bidwell Mansion advocates who helped raise approximately $120,000 to keep the building open in the face of threatened closures are reeling over the July 20 revelation that the California Department of Parks and Recreation has been sitting on more that $50 million of unreported funds for up to 12 years.

“Like everyone else, we’re surprised and alarmed,” said Maria Phillips, press secretary for the Bidwell Mansion Community Project. The BMCP was formed in November of last year to raise $100,000 by July 1, money State Parks claimed was necessary to keep the mansion open three days a week for the 2012-13 fiscal year.

“It is incredibly alarming,” Phillips continued, “because either this was done on purpose, which is really horrible, or the accounting methods and oversight used were sloppy.”

The scandal came to light last Friday, July 20, as Ruth Coleman, State Parks’ director, stepped down from the position she’d held since 1999. Another State Parks official, Chief Deputy Director Michael Harris, was fired over the debacle the same day, and the state is still investigating how the money went unreported. Upon resigning, Coleman said she was unaware of the funds but accepted responsibility.

“I am personally appalled to learn that our documents were not accurate,” Coleman said in her resignation letter, released by the Governor’s Office.

Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird, who oversees State Parks, told The Associated Press that the investigation was ongoing and refused to speculate on whether the surplus was caused by a legitimate mistake or wrongdoing. He said thus far there’s no indication any money was stolen.

The money—nearly $54 million—came from two separate funds. A State Parks and Recreation fund held $20.4 million more than reported, while an off-highway vehicle fund held $33.5 million extra. The monies in question are collected from park fees and rentals and from registering all-terrain vehicles, respectively.

The missing surplus was discovered as State Parks investigated another newly discovered scandal within the department’s headquarters: a vacation-buyout program for employees that cost taxpayers an estimated $270,000.

Last year State Parks, responding to a projected state budget deficit, threatened closure of 70 of the state’s 279 parks, with Bidwell Mansion included on the hit list. Statewide, community organizations struck deals with the parks to raise money necessary to keep them operating. Last month, it was announced most of the parks would stay open.

“It’s not just a question of trust being lost, it’s also a question of resources being channeled to an area that might not have needed it so much,” Phillips said. “While we were working so hard to save the mansion and get money for it, we were inadvertently damaging other nonprofits, very worthy ones, that really could have used the help.

“We do think that the damage done morally obligates them to at least provide funds matching what we’ve raised.”

Phillips also said the mix-up at the state level momentarily threw all of their efforts into limbo: The BMCP just signed its donor agreement and handed the first $20,000 quarterly installment to local State Parks representative Michael Fehling at a public ceremony at the mansion on July 16. The other signature needed to make the document official was Coleman’s.

“We were afraid of how it might affect the donor agreement, but just got word that it was signed,” she said. “We’re still not sure if Ruth Coleman signed it or if it was signed by [Interim Director] Janelle Beland.”

Other uncertainties loom in the face of the scandal, but Phillips said for now the BMCP will continue as usual. “We plan to keep contributing the $20,000 per quarter,” she said. “All of the money we have raised will still go to the mansion.”

Phillips said that it is still unclear if all of the found money will go back to keeping parks open.

“No matter what, this money is a one-shot deal,” she continued. “There’s still a systemic deficit in the structure of funding for State Parks that will take several years to correct. … If the parks department works in good faith distributing this money, it will take some of the pressure off [nonprofits].”

Phillips explained the BMCP worked hard on the wording of its donor agreement to ensure that it would receive regular accounting reports. The first of these is due before the organization hands over another $20,000, Phillips said.

“The only good news that may come of this is that State Parks personnel and offices might be a little easier to work with,” she continued. “They haven’t always been willing or able to give us all of the information we’ve wanted and needed. Now more than ever, we are insisting on total disclosure and total transparency.”