China Camp Village lovers will be celebrating Saturday as the California Department of Parks & Recreation officially signs a new agreement that keeps the park running. And Olompali State Historic Park near Novato. And Tomales Bay State Park, too.
Now for the back story. The Marin State Parks Association, Friends of China Camp, and a host of similar groups around the state scrambled last year to save 70 parks put on a closure list — back when the state parks department claimed it didn’t have the cash to keep all its parks open.
Then $54 million dollars was discovered sitting on the books undeclared. Audits later determined $34 million of that was unspent money for off-highway vehicle projects. That still left $20 million for which the explanation appears to be that parks department officials feared
a) they would get in trouble
b) the money would be taken from them to plug state budget holes
Shortly thereafter, then-Assemblyman Jared Huffman of San Rafael sponsored a bill that froze the closures and directed the parks agency to use $10 million of the $20 million to provide matching funds to support local operating agreements.
The Marin State Parks Association then raised more than $1 million, including grants of $100,000 from the county and $50,000 from the Dean Witter Foundation. The state will provide $950,000 in matching funds.
The association will operate China Camp, Olompali and, along with the National Park Service, Tomales Bay state parks through mid-2015. After that, the operating agreement can be renewed annually through 2017, presuming all sides are happy with the arrangement.
Association Chair Ernest Chung wrote this to supporters earlier this week:
The matching fund will relieve much of our near-term financial stress. It will also provide a valuable window to improve the viability of the three parks – by strengthening the parks’ revenue generation capabilities, catching up on deferred maintenance, and building programs to enhance the experience of park users...
It is hard to believe that just a few months ago, we were a small and unknown organization to the public. Now, we are on the verge of operating 3 of the 6 state parks in Marin County (counting Angel Island). We are only able to do this because of our community's love of these parks, and their tremendous support; we cannot thank them enough.
Meanwhile, back in Sacramento, yet another audit of the parks department found bad accounting festered for 20 years before the scandal finally broke last summer.
As then-parks chief Ruth Coleman told the California Report, state officials don't have a clear picture of how much each park costs because they track expenses by districts, each containing several parks. The review that the state auditor released this week criticizes that way of doing business, noting the parks department was using "outdated information to develop estimated operating costs for its parks.”
A spokesman for the parks department told the Sacramento Bee the agency agrees with the recommendations of the audit and plans to implement them with the help of the state's Finance Department.