Should it have never been in danger of closing?

Two secret stashes totaling  $53 million at the California Department of Parks and Recreation have come to light this week, prompting an investigation by the state’s attorney general, the Friday morning resignation of parks director Ruth Coleman and questions about whether the money might have averted the closure of 70 state parks due to budget cuts.

The Sacramento Bee reported news of the scandal this morning. In an afternoon press conference call plagued by technical problems, Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said the money—$20 million in the State Parks and Recreation Fund and $33 million in the Off-Highway Vehicle Fund—had been accumulating for 12 years, and that the parks department had been underreporting it to the Department of Finance. A recently appointed deputy director of parks administration, Aaron Robertson, discovered the discrepancy.

The situation begs the question of whether the money could have prevented parks closures. In May the Natural Resources Agency released a list of 70 state parks to be closed in order to save $22 million. Most of those parks have actually remained open to some degree, thanks to civic organizations like Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks that stepped up to operate the parks, if only on a limited or temporary basis.

Asked if the money could have averted the closures, Laird replied, “That’s still a question. But this is deeply disappointing, because we just went to many partners around the state to get them to step up and cover the shortfall.”He said, though, that the newly discovered money could possibly go to those 70 parks.

He added that deferred maintenance  for the parks department is estimated at $1.2 billion (with a “b”), suggesting that the $53 million, while not insignificant, would not have solved all the department’s troubles.

Laird said he had only learned about the scandal “in the last 48 hours” and stressed the administration’s decision to make the information public even though few details are available. Reports say it wasn’t clear what the two funds were planning to do with the money.

Today’s disclosure comes on the heels of another scandal at the parks department revealed last week by the Bee. A senior official, who's since resigned, was offering employees a secret vacation buyout program. It cost the department $270,000 in the midst of a serious budget crisis.