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Melissa Griffin: Parks Scandal, Staff Raises Threaten Brown Tax Plan

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Gov. Jerry Brown

California Gov. Jerry Brown speaks at Los Angeles City Hall on January 18, 2012. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)


SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) – This past week it was discovered that the California Parks and Recreation Department has been sitting on a pot of money – nearly $54 million dollars – for about 12 years. The Department’s Director Ruth Coleman resigned and department’s Deputy Director Michael Harris was fired.

State Natural Resources Agency Undersecretary Janelle Beland was appointed by Governor Brown to act as interim director of the department.

The money was discovered after Manuel Thomas Lopez, deputy director of administrative services, retired and his successor Aaron Robertson arrived and began digging in to the department’s finances.

The money was from the Parks and Recreation Fund ($20.3 million) and the Off Highway Vehicle Fund ($33.5 million) and was simply not reported to the Department of Finance or the Controller’s Office.

This is particularly troubling because the state had been ready to close 70 state parks because of a $22 million budget shortfall. Non-profits across the state have been working overtime to keep the parks open – an effort that has obviously taken a blow by this discovery. The $54 million will now go to the general fund, where the legislature will decide where it should be spent.

This really could not have come at a worse time, with the governor lobbying desperately to get his tax increase passed. His claim that the state is out of money is completely undermined by the notion that one department could have this kind of money without anyone knowing about it. Voters will surely wonder if there are other secret pockets of money. Even if there is no  more money to be found, this stellar example of financial mismanagement is just another reason for voters to refuse to vote for a tax increase that will give more money to these folks.

As if the $54 million dollar discovery weren’t enough to erode voter confidence in state bookkeeping, it was also revealed last week that Lopez secretly arranged to buy back vacation time for himself and several others at a cost of more than $271,000.

In the meantime, with state workers who facing a 4.6% pay cut this fiscal year, and Governor Brown crying poor, state lawmakers voted to give $1.5 million in raises to staffers. Could they be more out of touch with reality?

Right before declaring a “salary freeze” last Wednesday, the state Senate confirmed that it gave raises of up to 5% to 559 of its legislative staffers and the Assembly has given raises to 120 staffers since January.

Granted, those employees has not had a raise in four years, but 93 of those getting raises already make more than $100,000 per year and none got decreases that lower-paid state workers are suffering.

Between endorsing the expensive high-speed rail project, providing no meaningful pension reform, giving raises to highly-paid staffers, $54 million found under the couch cushions and outrageous vacation payouts…the case for why the state needs new money and can spend it wisely is getting harder and harder to make with a straight face.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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