MERCED — Local state parks supporters are gearing up for another year of fundraising, despite a recent scandal that threatens to undermine community efforts.
"It was hard in the first place because everybody's so broke," said Cindy Lashbrook, associate director of the East Merced Resource Conservation District. "But now it makes it even harder because people are going, 'We didn't need to do this in the first place.' Well, we do."
Last month, the California State Parks Department was discovered to have about $54 million in unreported funds. The news shocked and frustrated many community members who had been scrambling to keep open local state parks.
Now park advocates are trying to raise morale as local fundraising efforts continue to largely determine the fate of California's state parks over the next few years.
"We're in this together, and we can't do it alone," said Jess Cooper, state parks district superintendent for the Central Valley. "I would hate to see one incident like this have people think that we're not who they thought we were, because we really are. We're still the folks looking out for their best interest."
A fund drive to save McConnell and Hatfield state recreation areas raised $65,000 and will keep the parks open at least until next summer, when park advocates likely will need to deliver a similar amount again.
The East Merced Resource Conservation District is gearing up for another fundraising season, Lashbrook said. "We need to organize a real group of volunteers and we're going to start seeing some fundraising," she said.
Although the news dealt a setback to fundraising efforts in Merced County and other communities around the state, the governor's office recently asked lawmakers to spend about $20 million of the recently discovered parks money on repairs and a matching fund to solicit future donations.
The nearly $54 million was from two funds: $20.4 million in the State Parks and Recreation Fund and $33.5 million in the Off-Highway Vehicle Fund.
Lashbrook expressed optimism that the governor's recently proposed plan could turn the discovered money into a blessing in the long run. "That will make it a lot easier to fundraise," she said. "First thing, it'll be less money, and second thing, it'll be, 'OK, look, the state anteed back up.' "
However, it's not clear how quickly that money could be made available to local communities. State leaders must first vote on a plan before a deal can be put into place.
"We're working with the Legislature to figure out the best way to spend that money," said Sector Superintendent for State Parks Bill Lutton. "It's going to be awhile until they figure out where it's going to go. So there's nothing that we're going to be able to do with that money for a while."
This year, fundraising efforts, privatization deals and government intervention have staved off the closure of almost all of the 70 parks as part of an effort to save $22 million a year.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.