By Matt Weiser
Published: Saturday, Sep. 1, 2012 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
The amount of money hidden by California state parks officials in one of two special funds has suddenly become unclear, preventing the Legislature from spending the money to repair and reopen parks.
A dedicated pot of money known as the Off Highway Vehicle Trust Fund holds the majority of the “hidden assets” that officials at the state Department of Parks and Recreation kept off the books when they filed annual reports with the Department of Finance.
When the scandal was first reported by The Bee on July 20, officials in the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown reported that the hidden assets totaled $54 million. The OHV fund held about $34 million, and the balance of $20 million was in the State Parks and Recreation Fund.
Unlike general government spending for basics such as payroll and paper clips that are covered by the state’s general fund, these special funds collect revenue generated at the parks themselves, through entrance fees, souvenir sales and other site-specific sources. The OHV fund serves the state’s eight parks dedicated to off-road vehicle enthusiasts, as well as grants for trail projects elsewhere. The State Parks and Recreation Fund helps cover operating costs at the state’s 270 other parks.
For reasons still unclear, parks leaders squirreled away the $54 million for as long as 12 years, according to a preliminary investigation by the Natural Resources Agency and the Finance Department. This continued even as parks officials moved last year to close 70 parks to comply with cuts to the state’s general fund.
Parks director Ruth Coleman resigned as the scandal broke. Separate investigations are under way by the attorney general, the state auditor and the Legislature.
Late last week, Finance Department chief deputy director Michael Cohen told the Senate Budget Committee that his agency is no longer sure how much money was hidden in the OHV fund, and that clear answers would have to await the outcome of the investigations, expected to last the rest of the year.
He said it also was unclear how much of that final amount would be available to spend on parks vs. what has already been committed to particular projects.
“What exactly was going on with that fund is not clear,” Cohen said. “Because we don’t have full information on the fund, we don’t think it’s appropriate to make additional … decisions based on information that may or may not be accurate.”
His testimony came during debate over Assembly Bill 1478, by Assemblyman Bob Blumenfeld, D-Woodland Hills, to spend the $20 million discovered in the State Parks and Recreation Fund. The bill was approved by the Senate on Thursday and awaits the governor’s signature. It appropriates $10 million from the fund for park maintenance projects and $10 million as matching funds for private grants for parks.
Cohen said the Finance Department has enough information to know that the $20 million in the parks and recreation fund actually exists, and so the committee approved the bill.
There was bipartisan support to amend the bill to begin disbursing the $34 million hidden in the off-highway fund, as well. But the senators were outraged to learn there is far less certainty about these funds.
“What I don’t understand is that we’re OK going ahead with the $20 million, but we have to have ongoing investigations for some months on the OHV fund,” said Sen. Doug Lamalfa, R-Richvale. “Why is the OHV fund being discriminated against? It’s deplorable.”
Steady funding for off-road division
Lamalfa’s frustration follows years of political tension over the funding for off-highway vehicle parks. The Democrat-controlled Legislature has repeatedly tapped the lucrative OHV fund to subsidize other state functions. Off-roading groups and their mostly Republican allies consider this tampering to be improper and unfair.
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