State Parks discovers $54 million surplus

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State auditors discovered the steep unreported surplus during a year in which State Parks threatened to close 70 parks, leading the agency’s director to resign Friday.

By Melissa Caskey / The Malibu Times

California’s Parks and Recreation Department secretly stashed away a $54-million budget surplus for more than 10 years, the Sacramento Bee reported last week.

The discovery is especially troubling after the department emphasized major financial struggles this year and threatened to close 70 state parks in order to save $22 million, according to the Bee. State Parks also took in donations from private donors and nonprofit organizations. It is unclear whether that money will be returned.

The State Parks Department has been involved in several high-profile cases in Malibu over the years, including the Malibu Lagoon project currently underway and efforts to remove Rindge Dam.

The lagoon project is designed to redirect water flow from the lagoon into the ocean, but critics believe the project is harmful to lagoon wildlife and the water at Surfrider Beach. Supporters say the dredging and reshaping will improve water and ecological quality in the lagoon. State officials began pumping water out of the lagoon Monday morning.

Supporters of the removal of Rindge Dam believe the steelhead trout population in Malibu Creek would spike after a major drop in population due to environmental degradation and urban sprawl.

Between 2002 and 2008, State Parks spent $4 million researching the dam’s removal. Further studies were placed on hold in 2009 due to what State Parks cited as a lack of funding.

The hidden surplus reported by the Sacramento Bee last week is alleged to have begun accruing many years before the studies lost funding.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the $54-million surplus was discovered by state auditors in two State Parks accounts: one that finances property purchases for recreational use of off-road vehicles, and another account meant to fund general parks maintenance.

Accountants from the parks department reportedly sent accurate figures to the state controller’s office during the time the money accrued, but the governor’s budget office was receiving inaccurate numbers all along, according to the Times. The person or persons at fault for the discrepancies have yet to be determined.

The lack of reconciled numbers caused Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget office to immediately begin looking into other state departments’ finance reports.

State Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned amid the controversy and Chief Deputy Michael Harris was fired by the state. State Attorney General Kamala Harris and the Department of Finance have both launched investigations into State Parks’ bookkeeping.