Senior Passes: Is this the tip of another iceberg-sized scandal for State Parks?
By JIM MATTHEWS
In 2012, the California Department of Parks and Recreation misplaced $54 million. The money was found in two accounts. That is a chunk of change for an agency with a budget of just over $500 million a year back then. It also came during an era of massive cutbacks and reduction of services at Parks because of a shortage of funds.
This news made headlines for several days and popped in an out of the daily television news cycle for a few weeks. The Parks director resigned. Politicians made indignant speeches. There were promises made to get to the bottom of all this. A Commission was formed to look at the problems that led to the pot of “hidden assets.”
In 2015, Parks Forward (that Commission) reported that the agency uses “outdated technology,” and it proposed a series of actions to end “years of scandal, mismanagement, and stagnation.” In a 2017 a report was written documenting the progress on addressing these problems within State Parks. It noted that “data collection was strengthened,” and the agency had built “improved relationships with our partners.” While it didn’t spell out how these things were accomplished in detail or with data you could double check, you hoped the report was telling the truth.
Since May this year a group of senior uses of Lake Perris State Recreation area has been hounding various management staff at Parks trying to get an answer to a simple question:
“Why are Parks now turning away seniors with Limited Use Annual Passes, even when the Park has few visitors?”
Parks has repeatedly replied that limited use senior passes have always been restricted to use in the off-season. Between the Friday proceeding Memorial Day in April through Labor Day in September, the passes are not valid at all Parks. It has been that way since 1991 when the past was created, according to Parks.
However, that was not what took place in practice, and it was not what seniors were told when buying these passes. Seniors were told that the pass would only be invalid if the park was “at or near capacity.” (Some seniors claimed that was exactly what was said on the Parks website until this year)
The 2019 senior pass does not say anything about not being valid from May 24 through Sept. 2 on the pass, and until this year, senior passes could be used year-around at Lake Perris and other state parks. But that changed this year, and many seniors were startled when they were told that news the first time they tried to enter a park after May 24.
That’s when the phone calls and e-mails began. While Parks insists only four refunds for outraged seniors have been made, the staff at Lake Perris had refund forms handy and gave them out freely at the entrance gates.
For two plus months, Parks has been unable or unwilling to provide information to seniors why this change took place. They don’t dispute that in the past seniors were freely admitted at most parks year around, especially mid-week, when parks were not busy.
When Parks was asked to provide data on how many annual senior passes have been sold the previous five years, the data was unavailable. The only place that apparently tracked sales was at the headquarters in Sacramento where sales are on an automated system. Sales in that office have grown from just under 1,000 in 2015 up to 1,475 last year and 1,435 this year through June 28. They had no data on statewide sales for any of the past five years.
The amount of money raised by the $20 limited use senior passes each year was also unavailable. Ditto for all other annual passes. No one in more than two months of inquiries has been able or willing to provide total numbers or sales values of all annual passes.
Day use and boating use passes at two parks -- Lake Perris State Recreation Area and Lake Silverwood Recreation Area -- are simply a cash register receipt on a piece of tape for visitors to stick on their windows. They are not itemized.
The seniors who bought annual passes received the same type of non-itemized receipt. The annual day use passes have a bar code, but no cards were scanned, according to a number of seniors who purchased passes.
For day-use or annual passes, at least at these two heavily-used parks, there is no way accurate data can be gathered or the funds collected can be calculated or verified, especially considered that this is nearly an all-cash system.
So, is this strengthened data collection and accounting?
It appears that seniors have scratched off an ugly scab that needs to be investigated yet again. State Parks accounting is lackluster at best, data collection almost non-existent, and it would be easy for someone working in the right positions to steal significant sums of cash and never be caught.
It appears these serious issues were defined back in 2015, but that nothing really has been done to fix the problems yet. It must be because of a shortage of funds.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.