Closing parks will be hard, may not give enough relief

2:00 a.m. June 3, 2009

SACRAMENTO – Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's approach to padlocking state parks is rooted solely in economics, rather than also recognizing the environmental and recreational value of forests, museums and beaches.

But even from a pure business standpoint, the plan may not be as easy to achieve or provide as much budget relief as the governor suggests.

Desperate for revenues, Schwarzenegger has taken the unprecedented step of proposing the closure of 220 of the 279 state parks and beaches – from Lake Tahoe's Emerald Bay to the deserts of Anza-Borrego – to save about $213 million over the next two years.

Administration officials said the list of targets came down to which parks generate more revenues from fees and concessions than they cost to operate.

But the cost-benefit analysis is incomplete: The state has hard specifics on how much money individual parks generate, but officials said they aren't as certain about operating costs.

Further, critics say the overall plan is short-sighted. If the parks close, they say, the state will lose millions in tax revenues generated by nearby businesses in addition to more job losses.

“Our economy is the park,” said Dick Troy, a director of the Anza-Borrego Foundation and representative of the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce.

Troy was one of about 100 park supporters protesting the shutdown plan before a legislative budget committee in Sacramento yesterday.

Last year, the governor conceded that he threatened park closures to “rattle the cage” of lawmakers.

Now administration officials say the governor has no choice, given the staggering $24.3 billion deficit that is forcing him to call on legislators to carve deeply into spending for vital public services, schools and health care for children.

“There's nowhere else to cut,” said Aaron McLear, a spokesman for the governor.

Under the Schwarzenegger's plan, major money-makers, such as Old Town San Diego and Hearst Castle, will continue to ring up sales, while less commercial parks, such as Point Lobos near Carmel and the ghost town of Bodie, will be off-limits.

In the San Diego Coast District, the 10 parks together generated $9.73 million in fees and concession income in 2007-08. That was $255,000 less than the $9.98 million in local operating costs, mostly salaries and benefits. The state could not provide costs for specific parks.

On the proposed closure list are several San Diego County landmarks: Torrey Pines, Anza-Borrego, Cuyamaca Rancho, Palomar Mountain, Silver Strand and Carlsbad beach.

Remaining open would be popular beach campgrounds, such as Cardiff, San Elijo, San Onofre and South Carlsbad, officials say.

Those parks, among others making money, will be counted on to generate enough revenue to subsidize the costs of minimal patrols and maintenance for the closed facilities.

Those costs would cut into the savings. When the governor proposed posting closed signs on 48 parks last year, the estimated general fund savings was pegged at more than $13 million. Associated costs would have reduced that amount by more than $4 million.

Simply erasing the state's general fund allotment to parks – proposed at $70 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1 and $143 million in 2010-11 – does not mean the state will save that amount once all of the lost revenues and economic multipliers are factored in.

Depending on when the order is issued, probably after Labor Day, the state would have to go through a lengthy process to lay off a large share of today's work force, which includes 650 rangers and hundreds of others, from lifeguards to maintenance workers. Park officials estimate that 700 pink slips could be issued statewide this fiscal year and an additional 1,200 in 2010-11.

Campground fees, plus a $7 reservation charge, would have to be refunded. Plus, there's likely a price to pay for breaking concession contracts.

Many of these underlying expenses for the latest proposal have not been estimated, parks officials concede, because a shutdown of this magnitude has no precedent.

Schwarzenegger's team also has yet to factor in the loss of sales tax and employment taxes once business dries up at concessions and in stores near shuttered parks. Out-of-state tourists could cancel plans if they hear parks are closing.

A 2002 study funded by the parks department found that for every $1 the state invested, $2.35 was returned to the general fund. Parks, according to the study, far outdrew all of the state's private amusement parks combined, including Disneyland, 80 million visitors to 49 million.

Alternatives, from raising fees to relying on more volunteers, are more complicated than they appear. Day-use and camping fees drive attendance, along with weather and gas prices. Crowds fall when fees rise, but just how much can be blamed on higher camping and parking charges has not been quantified.

Politically, lawmakers are very much aware that voters resoundly rejected broad-based tax increases in the May 19 special election. Yet Californians also have shown a willingness to pay more for programs they support through targeted fees.

Increases, if found palatable, could not possibly cover the entire general fund shortfall of $213 million over two years. To raise that kind of money, state officials suggest parking and camping fees would have to triple.

Still, some influential Democrats want to review fees as part of the budget mix, and some Republicans, including the governor, say they are willing to listen.

“I'm certain fees will be part of the solution. People do not want to see their parks close,” said Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis.

Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, R-San Diego, said the state needs a comprehensive approach, focusing first on cutting costs and bringing in private contractors in some cases.

Then, the state needs to have a “tough but real discussion” on camping and day-use charges, Fletcher said.

The parks department does have a “proud partners” program for corporate underwriters and relies on 19,000 volunteers already credited with being the only thing standing between the open and closed signs at some facilities.

McLear, the governor's spokesman, said the governor is willing to listen to “creative ways” to rescue parks, including targeted fees.

Critics of the governor's plan note that the loss of rangers and other professionals could delay reopenings for years as parks struggle to fix water pipes, train new rangers, and undo vandalism and other effects of the closures.

“You can't just flip the switch and have your park system back when the crisis is over,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.

Regardless, Huffman warned that some parks may close.

“You can't pretend that parks will be immune,” he said.

Michael Gardner: (916) 445-2934;

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