Privatizing Mendo’s Parks?
by Kathy Bailey, January 25, 2012
A couple of weeks ago local park advocates got word that the California Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) had asked the Public Works Board (PWB) for authorization to request proposals from private for-profit concessionaires to manage bundles of state parks. One of the bundles includes Hendy Woods in addition to Russian Gulch, Westport Union Landing, Standish-Hickey — all in Mendocino County, plus Austin Creek in Sonoma County. Months ago there had been talk that DPR would be seeking proposals from private concessionaires, but the idea of a big bundle was news. The newly-formed group Hendy Woods Community (HWC) has already submitted a non-profit proposal to DPR that would keep key state employees including a Ranger, Maintenance Chief, Senior Park Aide, and two seasonal maintenance workers employed by the State, substitute volunteers for several seasonal employees, work with DPR to enhance revenues at the park, and provide donations sufficient to allow DPR to run Hendy Woods at no additional cost to the state.
Because the Anderson Valley community has responded with an outpouring of concern and offers to help avoid park closure, HWC thinks its proposal is feasible. Realistically, implementing it will be a big push, and there are significant hurdles to overcome along the way before July 1, when the targeted parks are slated to close. Being thrown into competition with a private concessionaire wanting to manage a bundle of five parks adds another level of complexity.
Assembly Member Jared Huffman and his staffers at the Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee seem to have been the first to become aware of the item that would authorize DPR to post the Requests for Proposal (RFP) from concession operators. They immediately sent a letter to the Public Works Board and DPR outlining some concerns. Here are some excerpts from Huffman’s letter, dated January 9, 2012:
While I understand concession contracts are appropriate in many instances and provide a legitimate service in a number of parks currently, I believe that issuing RFPs at this time for concession contracts in parks where negotiations are currently under way for proposed operating agreements under AB 42 is premature and inappropriate for all of the following reasons:
If the DPR issues an RFP and accepts a concession contract with a for-profit company to operate just the campground in a park, this could take away the main revenue source for the nonprofit group to operate and maintain the entire park, including day use areas, picnic grounds, trails, and other natural and cultural resources, in addition to the campground. As a result, the nonprofit may be forced to withdraw their proposal, and the state could end up with a campground operated by a private company for a profit, while the rest of the park is unmanaged and allowed to deteriorate. Issuing RFPs for concession contracts for campgrounds in parks that will no longer be operated by the state may therefore be contrary to the state's public trust interest in protecting the entire park. It is also inconsistent with AB 42, which provides that all of the revenue raised in the park shall remain in the unit for support of the park.
Issuing RFPs for concession contract proposals without prior notice to the nonprofit groups who have expressed interest in and been in the process of negotiating operating agreements with the state under AB 42 could undermine the public's trust in the government process. Groups who have been working with the DPR in good faith may legitimately feel blindsided and that the state is disregarding the concerted efforts that have already been undertaken in local communities to develop partnerships and gather resources.
RFPs that are soliciting proposals for concessions for bundled parks may not be feasible for nonprofit groups who have the capacity to operate one or perhaps two parks on the closure list but not 5 or 6. By their very nature, such proposals could exclude nonprofit groups from competing. Alternatively, if for-profit companies are allowed to cherry pick only those parks that they believe will earn them a profit, this will further undermine the ability of the nonprofit community to put together viable proposals to operate parks for the benefit of the public.
Huffman concludes by asking DPR to “put on hold plans to issue RFPs for concession contracts for parks on the closure list until negotiations over any pending proposals for nonprofit operating agreements are finalized.”
On Friday, January 13, State Senator Noreen Evans, who was supposed to have been notified about the Public Works Board item but was not, issued a blistering release, which included:
It’s like they’re offering our State Parks up for sale to the highest bidder,” said Senator Evans who has six of the eleven parks in her district. “To learn that Parks is soliciting bids from for-profit private entities for concessions while they negotiate with local non-profits to keep parks as a community treasures is horrifying. Local non-profits will not be able to manage parks if their largest source of revenue is given away to concessionaires. According to the Department of Finance’s 20-Day Notification Letter, these concessionaires would pay the state up to 3% of their revenues — a pittance — on what should be the best source of revenues to keep all of our State Parks open. If this is all the state would receive, it’s a gift of public resources to private entities.
Evans followed up with a constituent e-mail along similar lines.
Community groups with proposals for the bundled parks also weighed in. In response to all the uproar, the staff of the Public Works Board (PWB) pulled the item off the January 19 agenda on the morning of the hearing. Park advocates discovered the change either in transit or after arrival in the Capitol, but no one was complaining. Most were simply relieved to get a reprieve. The item has since been put on the agenda for a special PWB meeting now scheduled for February 1.
DPR is operating so short of staff that non-profits have been having a hard time finding someone willing to discuss their proposals. To add to the confusion, the District Superintendent of the Russian River District, who was the supposed contact point for Anderson Valley’s community group, stated in an e-mail to the representative of the Hendy Woods Community that DPR could not discuss their proposal because of the pending RFP for concessionaires. An inquiry to Assembly Member Huffman’s office yielded the information that this assertion contradicted what DPR was saying in Sacramento.
On January 13, DPR Director Ruth Coleman issued a letter attempting to clarify DPR’s positions. The letter concludes:
“State Parks hopes that these … statements refute concerns that (1) Parks has a preference for concessions over operating agreements — we do not, (2) non-profits need to participate in the RFP process rather than discussing operating agreements — they do not, and, (3) Parks has already chosen particular partnership approaches for certain parks — we have not. State Parks looks forward to working with all potential partners to best serve California’s citizens and best protect the resources of the State Park System.”
Here’s a quick review of how we got to this point. Back in March 2011 after closed door negotiating sessions with Governor Brown, the legislative budget committee, with no public hearings on the matter, sent a budget to the Legislature, which then approved it, directing the DPR to cut $22 million from its budget over two years and to implement the cuts by closing parks. DPR had three weeks to come up with a park closure list. A small group of Parks Department bureaucrats met behind closed doors with no oversight or feedback from the public, and came up with the list of 70 parks that would close on July 1, 2012. Then they destroyed their notes. Most of the decision-makers had never set foot in most of the parks slated for closure. Communities have been scrambling to respond ever since. Parks are facing the most fundamental management shift in their history, yet the public has had no say in the matter whatsoever.
Now communities are confronted with a situation that Senator Noreen Evans characterizes as DPR “offering our State Parks up for sale to the highest bidder.” Who among us really wants our beloved community parks to become “units” in a large for-profit management scheme? Yet, most DPR staffers will tell you they are taking this step to avoid park closures.
Mendocino County is hardest hit among all counties in the state, and Assembly District 1 is the location of fully 21.4% of all parks on the closure list. One of the central ironies of this situation is the composition of the Assembly Budget Committee that sent the bad parks deal to the Legislature for ratification. Among its senior members is Wes Chesbro, the Assembly Representative for District 1.
There is only one thing that can actually fix the situation Mendocino County’s state parks find themselves in: Money — a sum of money that has been characterized by many as amounting to a “rounding error” in the overall state budget picture. State Representatives, if they made it a priority, could find savings elsewhere in the budget and restore some of the money to the Parks budget to avoid park closures. Most people agree that keeping parks open keeps local economies moving and sends more tax monies to the state General Fund than would ever be saved by closing parks. If someone in Sacramento would seriously advocate for this financially sensible approach, it could result in the proverbial “win-win” for local economies and the state budget.
Such an approach would not mean the end of community involvement. Now that community groups are mobilized, they would still want to stay engaged to help make our parks the best public assets they can be. That level of engagement, in partnership with the Parks Department, wouldn’t require the commitment of scarce resources that groups are now mobilizing out of necessity. It would seem to be a sensible approach. Until that idea gains support in Sacramento, community-based organizations will continue to move forward with proposals, the state will likely issue Requests for Proposals from private concessionaires, and the weeks will tick on until, on July 1, we will see what has happened to our once great State Park system.