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As deadline nears, proposals surface to save up to 50 of 70 parks set to close

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POSTED May 8, 2012 8:39 p.m.


 

FRESNO (AP) — With a July 1 deadline approaching for dozens of California state parks on a budget closure list, legislators are scrambling to keep them open with bills meant to raise money through specialty license tags and improved entrance fee collections.

However, state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, said he has found existing revenue sources that could help defray the $22 million shortfall in operating costs. He hopes his bill will help keep at least 50 of the 70 parks on the list from closing.

"The notion of closing 70 state parks is penny-wise and pound-foolish," said Simitian, chairman of the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Resources, Environmental Protection, Energy and Transportation. "It doesn't make sense to take what may prove to be irreversible actions if we go down this path."

The state has a total of 280 parks.

The California Department of Parks and Recreation says 35 of the 70 parks on the closure list either have deals in place or in the works to stay open.

The department has been working for months to find nonprofit groups, municipalities and other entities to take over maintenance, concessions and the other duties needed to keep the parks open.

Simitian's bill, which his subcommittee is expected to vote on Wednesday, proposes using existing state fees and funding sources to cover some park operating costs and improvements.

For years, the parks department has used its own budget dollars to pay for road improvements, maintenance and traffic enforcement inside parks, when instead it could have used money from the $500 million motor vehicle license fee account to bridge a $15 million gap, he said.

H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the California Department of Finance, said motor vehicle license fees can indeed be used for infrastructure costs. He said his department is meeting with Simitian's staff to determine whether the proposal is viable.

At least 20 of the parks are on the closure list because of $1.3 billion in needed repairs to water and septic systems, according to department estimates.

Simitian's bill proposes appropriating $10 million annually as long-term loans from the federal Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund to repair the facilities. He said $21 million of it could come from local assistance program funding, which is a pool of state vehicle registration fee money earmarked for construction of off-road vehicle parks on federal land that can be redirected to state parks.

"Our goal is to get past the year-to-year crisis management of state parks and get together the beginning of a plan that will help us rebuild state parks," Simitian said.

The bill, announced Tuesday with Sen. Noreen Evans, incorporates a suggestion made by the Legislative Analyst's Office to hire non-sworn officers to perform duties such as guiding school tours and collecting entrance fees now handled by higher-paid rangers.

It also seeks to create a group insurance pool to reduce liability for the nonprofit agencies that have stepped up to run some parks.

Some of Simitian's proposals are similar to ones contained in an Assembly bill authored by Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, and Wesley Chesbro, D-North Coast, which unanimously passed the Revenue and Taxation Committee on Monday. They include approving concession agreements to help collect entrance fees from gate crashers.

Roy Stearns, a parks department spokesman, said he would not comment on either bill.

The California Department of Finance has met with Simitian's staff and is researching his funding proposal, said H.D. Palmer, the agency's spokesman.

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