Coe Park advocates: Pay up, or pay back

Henry Coe State Park offers something for all ages.

Local outdoor enthusiasts who fundraised a quarter of a million dollars to keep California’s second largest state park open to the public are demanding a refund if the state doesn’t allocate $20 million in recently discovered hidden funds “back to their original intended use.”

“We’re still in a crisis. We still need the Coe Park Preservation Fund. It’s not that you don’t need this groundswell of private citizenry,” said Morgan Hill resident Dan McCranie, treasurer of the nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping Henry W. Coe State Park open.

McCranie is a major donor and driving force behind the Coe Park Preservation Fund. Known as CPPF, the formidable volunteer organization inked a memorandum of understanding with the parks department that will keep the wilderness gem open and staffed for three years with two full-time resident rangers, a maintenance worker and two park aids.

“But while we’re busy collecting $10 in somebody’s old coffee can, (the state) could have stepped forward and been very helpful,” McCranie continued. “I feel like an old fool.”

His sentiments echo that of outraged grassroots organizations and private donors throughout California. Advocate groups such as the CPPF have labored tirelessly for the last year to prevent many of the 70 state parks threatened with unprecedented mass closure from permanently shutting their gates in 2012.

In the mean time, however, the parks finance department was actually sitting on an “underreported” cache of $54 million that dates back 12 years, as revealed in a preliminary internal investigation that came to light in mid-July.

While $34 million of that money is tied up in an off-road vehicle account intended for motorcycle and dune buggy parks, the other $20 million belongs to the general purpose State Parks and Recreation Fund, which is intended to support the general operation of state parks.

The account sources its revenue from fees, rentals and returns collected for the use of any state park system, according to a press release from the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the state parks department.  

Now, just months after cutting a check to the state for $279,000, the CPPF’s six board members want the state to pay up – or pay back.

“It’s just irritating that while we were negotiating with Department of Parks and Recreation for a year, somebody was sitting on $54 million in hidden funds – $20 million of which was collected from park visitors, for Pete’s sake,” said McCranie.

Stretching east of Highway 101 between Gilroy and Morgan Hill, Coe is known for 87,000 acres of pristine backcountry filled with mysterious groves of twisting Manzanita trees, shimmering streams, wildflower meadows, chaparral hillsides, the historic Gilroy Hot Springs and dozens of trails leading to breathtaking vistas.

When the state parks department revealed on May 13, 2011 that Coe was one of 70 state parks slated for permanent closure due to a $22 million budget cut enacted by Gov. Jerry Brown, a group of dogged Coe advocates stood up to the crisis by forming the CPPF.

Just a couple months after mailing its first installment of $279,000 to the state, however, the CPPF’s six board members are “deceived” and “irritated” by the parks department’s “incorrect assertions” over its “dire financial situation.”

The CPPF issued an ultimatum Friday via news release and press conference, threatening to cancel its 2011 memorandum of understanding. The group will request the “immediate” return of its $279,000 donation if the legislature does not allocate the $20 million “back to the department from which (it was) collected” by its next Sept. 30 session.

Without those donations, Coe would close, he confirmed.

While this would be “a doomsday scenario for us,” asking for their money back is the CPPF’s way of standing up for what its members say is the “logical and morally correct” action: Returning that $20 million “to the department from which (it was) collected.”

“I hope it never comes to that,” said McCranie. “We just want the legislature to do the right thing.”

It’s unclear how much of that $20 million Coe could receive. The CPPF will lobby for Coe’s fair share of the funding pie, which should at least be enough to fund another year.

The parks department’s “hidden assets” were brought to light in mid-July when newly hired staff in the park’s fiscal department – brought in due to a previous investigation related to unauthorized vacation buy-outs – conducted an internal review of accounts.

As a result, the state Attorney General’s office has now launched an internal audit and investigation into the parks department’s “budget irregularities and fiscal mismanagement.”

The California State Legislature has the final authority.

One of those votes will belong to Assemblymember Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville), who said the money should be “pooled directly back into the parks system.”

“We should not be closing a single park with this discovery,” he maintained. “It’s very upsetting and disturbing that this special fund wasn’t disclosed…when you see parks such as Coe that are at risk of closing down, and communities coming together to keep it open, it’s disappointing to see that the bureaucrats were shielding this money from the public eye for far too long.”

Since holding a press conference last Friday, CPPF has received “zero” responses from the California State Legislature. Assemblyman Bill Monning (D-Carmel) was unavailable for comment.

While McCranie was initially encouraged by the promise of $20 million in untapped funds that could help keep California’s parks open, that glimmer of hope was quickly dashed by circulating reports that the legislature might allocate the funds elsewhere.

At first, “I thought, ‘yippy skippy,’ there’s more money for the parks,” he said. “But then it became more obvious that the legislature gets to vote on it.”

The recent scandal caused by lack of government transparency could also make future fundraising efforts more difficult, CPPF members worry.

Since news of the hidden cash spilled into headlines last month, Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned and the department’s acting chief deputy was removed from his position July 20.

While acknowledging the budget “crisis is far from over,” McCranie noted that $20 million “would go a long way to helping mitigate this problem.”

“We’re not asking for anything crazy,” he rationed. “We’re just saying: Put the money that was collected at the park from visitors of the state parks, back into the state parks.”