May 24, 2011
Solano County's Only Two State Parks to be Closed
The Benicia State Parks Association
Concerned citizens met on May 12, 2011 at the Benicia Public Library to discuss the expected announcement that the two Benicia state parks would be closed due to state budget cuts (the official announcement of shuttering actually occurred on the following day, May 13, 2011). The goal of the meeting was to begin to define a path forward to keep the state parks from closing permanently. Benicia’s state parks include the Benicia State Recreation Area (BSRA) and the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park (BCSHP) which encompasses the Benicia Capitol building and the Fischer-Hanlon House (FHH), these represent the only state parks in Solano County. The California Department of Parks and Recreation said it welcomes partnerships with local governments and non-profit organizations that would be able to operate the state parks scheduled for closure. Such partnerships would likely require signing of a 10-year operating agreement with the State that would need to address both the ongoing operations of the state parks as well as the deferred maintenance projects in both parks.
Specifics of the situation
Q: How much were the cuts in the State Park budget?
A: Approximately $11 million in the 2011-12 budget; followed by a $22 million permanent reduction in the 2012-13 general fund budget. This represents a 44% reduction in the CA State Parks budget since 2006 which effectively brings staffing of state parks back to 1979 levels even though the entire state parks system has ½ million more acres and 10 million more annual visitors.
Q: What were the local numbers for Prop 21 (State Parks Access - $18 vehicle license fee)?
A: Solano County failed to pass Proposition 21, but Benicia and the Glen Cove precinct voters did vote in favor of it. Only 42% of eligible voters in Solano County cast their votes.Q: Do/will we (the City of Benicia or the Benicia state parks) get credit for the sale of annual passes at the Benicia state parks?
A: No, not to any recognizable ability to request credit or reimbursement. Our hope is to enable a local pass for the two Benicia state parks that would have the revenue remain local.
Q: Do we have a way to track the numbers using the BSRA? The number of users of the BSRA is not accurately reflected in the count of cars using the BSRA and paying to park. Need to include cars with passes.
A: There are no fully accurate numbers, but based on statistical surveys conducted in the past the number of annual visits is about 246,000.
What would “closing” the state parks mean?
Q: If state parks are closed what happens to the staff currently at the parks?
A: The Department of Parks and Recreation has indicated that they will retain or retire all existing permanent staff (moving them around as necessary). Unfilled positions will be eliminated to enable the staff reductions necessary to meet some of the budget reductions. It is unknown what will occur for seasonal employees (part time positions).
Q: What would happen to the furniture, artifacts, and reproductions in Fischer-Hanlon House and Capitol?
A: Artifacts would be removed to a warehouse for safe keeping. Unknown would be the state of reproductions, if occasional tours are allowed to be continued then the Capitol would probably still look the same, but a tour of the Fischer-Hanlon House would likely to be drastically different without the artifacts. Our hope at this point in time is to retain the artifacts and enable visitors to experience the historic life of middle class Benicia.
Q: What would closing the BSRA mean?
A: Since these are public lands (including part of the property purchased with federal funds), and there is a public trust doctrine requirement associated with shoreline/water access, the state park cannot be closed to public access. However, the gates would be closed to vehicles, restrooms locked, and water would be shut off. People would still be able to walk through the area to the shoreline/water, which then would become a public safety concern for our police and fire departments.
Q: What about bike routes through the BSRA? Would they remain open if the BSRA closed?
A: Yes, it would remain open for bikes and walkers/hikers. But see previous answer.
Cost of operating, maintaining, and improving the state parks
Q: What is the annual operating budget for the BCSHP & BSRA?
A: There is no completely accurate expense budget, but based on a prior attempt in 2009 we figured it is about $240,000 for employee costs for both state parks combined (shared employee resources). Assume that there are additional costs of operations, maybe we can call it about $300,000 annually, not including dealing with the deferred maintenance projects. If we add in the deferred maintenance projects (currently listed as $3.5 million of projects in the two state parks, though some projects probably will not be needed) we would be talking of about $600,000 annually over a 10 year period.
Volunteers and city participation would not necessarily result in actual expenditures at that level. We will likely have more options and it is likely our costs could be much less or offset with grants/donations/volunteers.
Q: Are the costs – utilities, deferred maintenance costs, entrance to parks – defined?
A: We need to better define the cost figures.
Q: How many volunteers/docents would be needed to keep the state parks open in the future (BCSHP & BSRA)?
A: We hope for 25-30 trained docents for the Capitol and Fischer-Hanlon House. For the BSRA, it would be great to have hundreds of volunteers participate in a park watch program.
Relationship of this issue to other groups in the community and to governmental entities
Q: Has there been any contingency planning by city or police relating to the BSRA closure?
A: Benicia Police Lieutenant Bob Oettinger responded that the Benicia Police Department has been and will probably be the primary first responder to incidents at the BSRA. For that reason the City of Benicia is participating in the planning because a closure of the BSRA will likely bring more enforcement work for the City of Benicia police department.
Q: What efforts have been made to include other stakeholders -- Chamber of Commerce, PTAs, etc.?
A: This meeting is the start of that process. Our hope is to organize a committee to facilitate efforts to reach an operating agreement.
Ideas relating to funding future operations and maintenance
Q: Could a Maintenance Assessment District be created?
Q: How could we better track of the number of people who visit the SRA? How could we get money for them?
A: That is the very nature of determining whether a local solution is possible. Do we as a local community sufficiently value our local resources to enable them to be available to all visitors? How should local use of these resources be paid for?
Q: Could Solano Land Trust play a role with the BSRA since they have expertise to carry the SRA through on a temporary basis?
A: Solano Land Trust is a non-profit that operates county-wide, and it is facing the same problems of funding operations and maintenance costs for its own properties.
Q: Might matching grants be available, and could they be part of an operating agreement?
A: Yes, that is possible. Additionally the California State Parks Foundation is preparing to enable a matching grant program of corporate funds for local fundraising efforts.