Parks and Wreck

Parks and Wreck

Like everyone else, state parks slim down as a result of the budget crisis

By Joy Lanzendorfer

The state budget crisis has touched every part of government. Ripples are going through the different departments, forcing them to draw into themselves and to reach into everybody else’s pocketbooks to survive. Everywhere, fees seem to be going up, and there are few Californians who will escape the effects of this crisis.

That includes those who frequent California’s many parks and recreation sites. The California Department of Parks and Recreation, the largest in the nation with 274 parks visited by roughly 85 million people a year, is facing cuts of $35 million from its $270 million budget.

The cuts will make it difficult for the parks to keep things running smoothly next year. And it will make it nearly impossible to get the $600 million needed for deferred maintenance projects. These problems are looming larger as the parks plow through the busy summer season.

“It’s been a different kind of summer already,” says Tom Lindberg, chief ranger of the North Bay District. “And we’re holding our breath to see what the rest of the summer will look like with these cuts.”

To compensate for the $35 million chunk taken out of the budget, State Parks raised fees for most activities earlier this year. Park entrance fees have increased from around $2 to $3, camping fees from $12 to $13, and some fees have been reinstated, such as the $4 boat-launch fee.

Though the fee increases are fairly incremental, they are enough to make a difference in the budget cuts. Through the increases, the park department has been able to make up nearly $20 million out of the $35 million total cut.

“Fees were cut several years back when the economy was thriving, so though they have gone back up, they are still not as high as they were before they were reduced,” says State Parks spokesperson Steve Capps.

Sonoma County Regional Parks Department is raising fees as well. Entrance fees for parks went up from $3 to $4, and park passes that give access to all parks and some activities for a flat fee increased from $40 to $50.

For the remaining $15 million cut out of the budget, State Parks is condensing the number of districts from 23 to 18. In the North Bay, it is reducing four districts to two districts. On July 1, the Russian River District and the Marin District were combined into the new North Bay District, which covers 15 parks from Salt Point to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Likewise, parts of Sonoma County and Napa County not covered in the North Bay District were swallowed into the new Diablo Vista District, formerly the Bay Area District and the Silverado District. This district covers another 15 parks stretching from Napa County over to Mt. Diablo.

By combining districts, State Parks is hoping to increase savings. “They say it’s more efficient,” says Joe Mette of the North Bay District. “In my career, we’ve gone from big to small and small to big. I don’t know what good it did. It’s never perfect. It never solves all the problems.”

The reorganization means some positions could be eliminated, around four or five people per district. But since the parks haven’t been able to fill open positions, the elimination of any position puts stress on the remaining employees, especially during the hectic summer season, when every person is needed.

The Marin portion of the North Bay District is so short-handed that four maintenance positions remain unfilled, and rangers sit in contact points and entrance booths instead of attending to the parks.

“It’s getting to the point that we are concerned about carrying on day-to-day operations,” says Lindberg.

Then there’s the matter of the $600 million in deferred maintenance. Considered separate from the main budget, deferred maintenance refers to most nonessential projects, big or small, that can be put off. These projects vary from key upkeep that keeps the parks running to the most ambitious wish-list items.

In 2000 Governor Davis earmarked $157 million to go to deferred park maintenance, but the parks haven’t received anything since then. And that amount barely made a dent.

Letting ongoing maintenance go can cause problems to build and become more expensive over time, according to Lorrie Thomas-Dossett, maintenance chief for the Diablo Vista District.

“Every year on the schedule, we want to prepare the hinges and the rust on the bathroom doors,” she says. “If we don’t repair them, they get worse. It gets to the point that it’s either repairing the rust on the door or repairing the water line.”

Historic buildings need extra care to keep them up, which can mean more expensive and pressing problems. Fixing one thing can mean putting off another. In normal economic situations, maintenance becomes a matter of choosing what not to fix.

And in tough economic times, the choices get harder.

“The maintenance just has to happen next year,” says Thomas-Dossett. “I don’t see how we can continue as we have been. Even if we don’t get the normal maintenance budget, which is about $217,000, they’ll just have to find some money somewhere.”

From the July 3-9, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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