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Friends of Palomar React to State Parks' $54 Million Surplus

Uncovered by The Sacramento Bee, the windfall of $54 million comes at a time when the state was desperate to keep its state parks open.

While state parks such as , news reports indicate the California State Parks Department has a previously unreported surplus of money.

The Sacramento Bee reported Friday that State Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned and her deputy was fired after officials learned the department has been sitting on nearly $54 million in surplus money for as long as 12 years. State Parks carried out a secret vacation buyout program for employees at department headquarters last year, costing the state more than $271,000, The Bee reported.

The revelation has put the State Parks Department under investigation, and prompted groups such as Friends of Palomar Mountain State Park to reassure supporters their money is safe.

Friends of Palomar Mountain State Park was a committee formed as a branch of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Interpretive Association—CRSPIA—a 501c3 nonprofit, in response to the looming closure of the park. and from private citizens.

"We at Friends of Palomar, like many of our colleagues across the state, are shocked and deeply disappointed with this news from Sacramento," stated a letter written to supporters. "Faced with looming closure and significant deferred maintenance issues, all of us have worked very hard and have given generously to save Palomar and keep it open for future generations.

"Despite this recent disclosure, we remain confident that our work has been and will be critical to ensuring that Palomar Mountain State Park remains open, and we will continue to work to improve the park and ultimately make it self-sustaining."

Rick Barclay, chairman of Friends of Palomar, spoke with Patch Wednesday about the news out of Sacramento.

"We are trying to assuage people's concerns," said Barclay, a Temecula resident and longtime volunteer for the park. "So far we have been very pleased with the feedback we have been getting.

"It doesn't look good, but how much would we have gotten from that money? That money still has to go through the Legislature."

Barclay said there is a distinct line between the park and the committee.

Friends of Palomar , he said—different from an operating agreement that other organizations took upon themselves in the fight to keep state parks open. The agreement was finalized in late May.

"We raise money, and the money supplements the park," he said.

The committee needs $420,000 over the term of its three-year donor agreement; to date it has brought in $162,229, according to Friendsofpalomarsp.org.

"We must wait for the results of the state's investigation and the Legislature's decision as to if and how it will deploy the apparent surplus in order to mitigate any budget shortfalls among the state parks, including Palomar. This will take some time, and the outcome is uncertain," the letter continued.

Legislative Reaction

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who co-authored , with Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, released a statement about the unexpected surplus.

Huffman, who also chairs the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, said in a statement that it was "troubling and frustrating" to hear that California State Parks officials secretly withheld $54 million in state funds.

AB 1589 addresses short and long-term needs for California State Parks in order to achieve substantial budget savings without wide-scale park closures. The bill includes an option for taxpayers to designate all or a portion of their state income tax refund towards purchase of an annual state parks pass.

"(This comes) at a time when my colleagues and I, along with hundreds of California residents, have worked diligently over the past few years to scrape up enough funds and resources to help save 70 state parks from closure due to budget cuts," said  "While many of these state parks have since been saved, it is only temporary relief as we continue to secure a more sustainable funding stream.

"I find it shocking that $54 million in state funds were kept off the books over the past several years, when we’ve been told several times by State Parks officials during budget negotiations that the funding wasn’t there to keep all of our parks functioning."

Huffman has repeatedly expressed concern about the lack of transparency and the "fortress mentality" at State Parks.

"The only good news I can see from this scandal is that it will bring much-needed transparency, accountability, and a serious ‘reset’ to an agency that desperately needs it," he said. "One thing that’s clear from this scandal is the state has the duty to keep every park open while we clean house at State Parks and resolve problems."

Huffman said he would work with Gov. Jerry Brown and and state Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird on the changes that are going to be necessary to restore public trust and confidence in state parks management and operations.

Brown appointed a replacement for Coleman on Friday.

—Brent Ainsworth of Novato Patch contributed to this report.

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