Local nonprofits weathering state park accounting storm

Local nonprofits weathering state park accounting storm
Bill Mahoney, founding board member of Friends of Cardiff & Carlsbad State Beaches, said his nonprofit is more relevant than ever in the face of a state parks scandal. Photo by Jared Whitlock

COAST CITIES — Bill Mahoney, founding board member of FCCSB (Friends of Cardiff & Carlsbad State Beaches) said he’s sought to reassure donors and volunteers after hearing concerns over the recent state park accounting errors. 

So far, he said they’ve listened.

While threatening 70 park closures and employee layoffs because of budget cuts, state parks officials allegedly underreported $54 million in funds. With the undisclosed funds, the backlash has been swift, especially among some nonprofits that contributed time and money to prevent park closures, shore up bone-dry staffing levels and beautify state parks.

For example, the president of the California State Parks Foundation, the largest of the state park nonprofits, wrote a letter condemning officials for damaging the public’s confidence in groups that provide a safety net for state parks. Many donors, even at smaller state park nonprofits, have publically asked for their money back.

But Mahoney said none of FCCSB’s donors and businesses have canceled checks or withdrawn their support.

In North County, FCCSB is the largest nonprofit that works with state parks. The group has raised $140,000 and has 120 members.

As evidence of continued backing, Mahoney pointed to FCCSB’s most recent fundraiser, which was held shortly after the accounting error was discovered. The nonprofit’s annual Christmas in July raised $24,000, nearly doubling the previous year’s total, though Mahoney said the higher amount could partly be attributed to improved organizational efforts.

“People have stood behind us,” said Mahoney, who decided to dedicate his time to local beaches following a career in executive management with a major publishing company.

“Some politely raised the issue at the event,” he added. “We answered questions politely in return.”

Mahoney said he felt “shock” and “dismay” when he heard about the funds. But he believes it will help FCCSB’s future fundraising and volunteer efforts in the long term, if only because residents will trust “locals helping locals,” as opposed to money being misused at the statewide level.

“I actually think it will make it easier, I really do,” he said. “It reinforces the mechanism that we’re promoting through the FCCSB, which is apply any local donation and see the results right here in the neighborhood that you work in or live in.”

The San Diego Coast North Sector, which includes state parks along the coast from Torrey Pines State Beach to Carlsbad State Beach, has seen its operating budget cut from $4.9 million in 2008 to $4.5 million in 2011, according to Clay Phillips, state parks district superintendent with the San Diego Coast. To cope with the budget reduction, positions haven’t been filled as they became available. The county’s state parks staffing vacancy rate is 27 percent, while the North Sector’s vacancy rate is pushing near 40 percent, according to Phillips.

FCCSB was formed in 2009 in response to the budget cuts. The nonprofit and its volunteers clean up trash on the beach, help with recycling, improve facilities, provide education classes, hold family events and work on construction projects. It’s work that Mahoney calls “supplementary” to what state park rangers at the beaches provide.

Because FCCSB has not contributed directly to the state to fund park operations, in the public’s eye, it may be better off than other state park nonprofits.

“People see a group of our size and they see it’s entirely volunteer run,” Mahoney said. “We have very little expenses and dollars go right back to the local beaches, not the state.”

Rick Barclay, chairman of Friends of Palomar State Park, acknowledged his nonprofit has had a tougher time convincing donors and volunteers to continue championing the group’s cause.

Still, Barclay said most have remained supportive of the nonprofit.

Unlike FCCSB, the nonprofit donated directly to the state. It was the only way to stop Palomar Mountain State Park from shutting down, Barclay said.

Palomar State Park was one of 70 state parks that was slated for closure. Three months ago, the nonprofit struck a deal to keep the park open thanks to $84,000 it raised (as of June) to close a funding shortfall.

“We raised money to cover the difference between the park’s revenues and expenses,” he said.

None of its supporters have asked for their donations back, Barclay said. However, 15 percent of those who said they would donate to the nonprofit at a future time have rescinded their pledge.

Barclay said the nonprofit entered into a donor agreement with the park, which is different from an operating agreement.

“We don’t operate the park,” Barclay said. “We just closed the funding gap so the park could stay open. So parks people can keep doing their jobs.”

“Money that’s raised for the park is earmarked and 100 percent goes directly back into the park,” he added. “The money doesn’t go into the state’s general fund.”

Of the $54 million surplus, state parks failed to report $34 million in the Off-Highway Vehicle Fund and $20 million in a state parks fund.

“People need to realize we still play a role,” Barclay said. “Funding from state for parks has declined greatly over the years — and that probably won’t change. We’re not flush with cash all the sudden.”

“The state’s misrepresentation shouldn’t reflect badly on us,” he added.

 

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  1. Don Amador says:

    Bill,

    I agree that local non-profits with more accountability vs. statewide non-profits such as the CA Parks Foundation play an important role in help CA parks open.

    Don

  2. Lowelldcie says:

    Many local PNs were dupes some were in on the deal. The leages and foundations were at the trough. The lowely civil servants were pounded down. While those we serve all looked away for way too long. Please help us little guys of the 99% or us common folk. Please audit and if need be jail the crooks no matter how rich and conected their society may be.

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