The list of 70 state parks slated to close July 1 because of budget cuts has dwindled to five. Just yesterday, the governor approved $10 million to give the Department of Parks and Recreation more time and resources to hash out a flurry of last-minute deals. And what happens to the five parks that don't have a deal?
As it happens, not much. There will be no clink of a padlock at the Benicia State Recreation Area on Sunday. Nobody's going to be there to collect parking fees, but there's generally nobody doing that now.
Local retirees Larry Fullington and Kate McNamara walk two to three miles here every day, and they intend to keep on doing it. "Absolutely," McNamara said. "We have a community out here, of walkers, bikers, joggers and we've all gotten to know each other."
Fullington agreed. "More of a happening than a walk, really," she said. "You can take an hour and a half to go a 15 minute walk, you know." McNamara laughs. "Hey, how are you? Slapping hands, bumping hips. You know. You saw 'em yesterday, but that's the way it is."
Like most state parks, there's a local nonprofit here with earnest volunteers who help run it. The Benicia State Parks Association covers both of Solano County's state parks - this one, and the old state capitol downtown.
A deal has been hashed out for the capitol, but talks fell through for the recreation area. Benicia State Parks Association Vice President Bob Berman is exasperated with what he calls the state's inflexibility. "For whatever reason, it has been difficult negotiating with the state of California," Berman says. "They don't seem to have a real urgency to get these parks taken care of. It has to be on their terms."
The parks department says the sticking point is the $77,000 the city wants the state to reimburse it each year if Benicia takes on the bathrooms, the trash and other simple maintenance.
But Mario Giuliani, economic development director for Benicia, says the sticking point is liability. The state doesn't want to fix what's broken, the city can't afford to fix it, and the state doesn't have a plan to protect Benicia from lawsuits in the event that restroom at Dillon Point really does slide off its foundation…or a poorly pruned tree drops a branch on a jogger.
"We can't really put a dollar amount on it. We just know that the state's sitting on a long list that totals in the millions, and that's not something that the city of Benicia wants to inherit," Giuliani says.
Beyond Benicia, nonprofits all over California are eating the risk when they sign operating agreements. Then again, these nonprofits aren't as tempting a legal target as a municipality is with its relatively deeper pockets.
"We have been successful I would say with a lower case 's'," Jerry Emory of the State Parks Foundation says. The Foundation has spent the last year facilitating a couple dozen deals, offering nonprofits pro bono legal advice and cash. Many deals last no longer than a year, but Emory says the effort is still worth it. "An open park, no matter how open, is far better than a closed park, for whatever amount of time. It gives us that time to think about longer term solutions," Emory says.
So given the limited capacity of the nonprofits and cities that have stepped up, what happens next year? And after that? There have been a couple highly publicized cases where wealthy donors saved specific parks, but those are the exceptions, not the rule.
Emory says the recent budget cuts to the department reflect a lack of fiscal commitment that's likely to scare off would-be park saviors. "Someone could sneeze in Silicon Valley and probably produce $22 million, right? But for some reason it hasn't happened," Emory says. "And in a way I can really see why, because the problem is systemic. It's just going to continue."
That's even though, Gov. Jerry Brown approved $13 million this week to help pay for capital improvements that boost the bottom line, like credit card readers for parking fees and solar panels for energy savings. Environmental groups cheered the news, but warn it's going to take a lot more money to restore the park system to its former glory.