State parks and recreation bury unexplained surplus

by Leonardo Castaneda

I’ve never much cared for the TV show “Parks and Recreation.” Something about Amy Poehler just rubs me the wrong way, maybe because she’s a poor man’s Tina Fey. Still, I can guess what the general plot of the show is: A motley crew of bureaucrats get into wacky she- nanigans in the process of run- ning city parks.

It’s a funny premise, until you realize it’s essentially how California’s park system is run. Within the last several years, the Department of California Parks and Recreation (it’s a real thing) found it had a budget surplus. Allegedly, it was unsure where this extra cash was coming from in the midst of massive cuts in state funding.

So out of fear, confusion or sheer incompetence, the highest levels of management channeled their inner Leslie Knope and did the only thing they could do: They hid the money.

They didn’t use it to keep parks open when they were facing widespread closures. They didn’t use it for maintenance and repair of state parks, or to hire seasonal workers for the summer season. They didn’t even use it to hire a small army to paint all the leaves in Redwood National and State Parks red. For a long time, they didn’t even try to embezzle it. According to The Sacramento Bee, all they did was hide it in a couple of secret accounts: one called Parks and RecreationFund (they really like the sound of that) with $20.4 million; an- other, called the Off Highway Vehicle Trust Fund, held $33.5 million. Almost $54 million, just sitting there for years, because no one knew where it came from or what to do with it.

Imagine walking into a hos- pital bleeding profusely after a gruesome car crash and finding the cast of “Scrubs” ready to laugh away your troubles. This is the everyday reality at the second largest state park system in the country.

How this was allowed to happen isn’t yet clear. The Sacra- mento Bee chronicles allegations of a hostile work environment created by the deputy director of administration Manuel Thomas Lopez, who was “angry and confused about the surpluses.” How far has our state fallen when anything less than total bankruptcy incites anger and confusion? The newspaper also indicated much of the upper level management had no experience dealing with park budgets. The usage fees individual parks collect, along with traditional state funding, complicate the Parks and Recreation budget.

Eventually, Lopez tried to redeem his comical incompetence by embezzling the money, the way any good state employee with extra cash floating around would. Yet he failed at this too, and his plan to illegally buy back vacation time from some park employees was soon discovered.

Behind this depressing sitcom-esque episode in mismanagement lies a deeper, darker omen. The men and women that found and hid the surplus funds for years were not criminals and they were (hopefully) not particularly incompetent. Many had years of experience managing budgetsin other departments. Yet they couldn’t deal with a simple surplus.

It is widely accepted that government work isn’t the most glamorous. But for years it was viewed as a safe alternative to the high risk, high reward pri- vate job market. Government employment used to mean a good, steady paycheck and a reasonable pension. With the unending assault on public sector employees, those incentives have eroded.

There is already evidence public sector employees earn less than comparable private sector workers. Benefits, such as health care and pension, historically closed the gap and made government work attractive. Without these incentives, people highly qualified for middle and upper management will instead be lured to private sector jobs.

We cannot afford this brain drain brought on by the erosion of benefits to public sector employees. If it continues, comical mismanagement will become depressingly common, and instead of seeing hidden surpluses, we might have to deal with undetected shortfalls. Recently,

The Economist argued chief executive pay at U.S. companies isn’t as unreasonable and unfair as everyone believes.

That argues pay atthe top is determined by supply and demand for top managerial talent, so massive multimillion dollar payouts aren’t the results of backroom deals and corruption but basic economics. The same applies to government employees: There are only so many people in California qualified to manage a large budget. If we cut back on pay, benefits and other work in- centives, we’ll lose the demand battle to private companies. And if that happens, get ready for the California Board of Accountancy to start resembling “The Office.”