Our Natural Treasures
For Orange County, the relatively quick emergence from the 1994 bankruptcy may have lulled many into a kind of false accounting. The current decline of many of Orange County’s parks is a reminder that there was no pain-free recovery. Decisions made at mid-decade have effects for the long term.
Orange County’s vast network of county parks is testimony to the vision of those who planned them. Today they provide respite from the march of suburban sprawl. The passage of time also shows that Orange County is losing its status as a new suburb. Many of the county’s parks were built in the 1970s. That is back far enough to have produced some broken benches and weary trails.
The Irvine Regional Park near Orange, one of the county’s treasures, is now 102 years old. While it retains many of the assets that draw more than 760,000 visitors annually, it is worse for wear.
Normal maintenance for this and other parks has suffered because of raids made on the budgets of the Harbors, Beaches and Parks Division. Even normal repairs have had to be deferred, and the approval of a new park for the Laguna Coast Wilderness has brought on a new and difficult choice: whether to refit older facilities or budget money for the new ones.
It used to be that the division was able to live off interest on reserve funds. But even before the bankruptcy, the parks budget became a tempting target when property tax revenue was shifted partly from counties and special districts to public schools in 1992.
Bankruptcy recovery resulted in the diversion of $4 million for the next 20 years from Harbors, Beaches and Parks. All of this has led to a substantial loss of the operating budget. More reductions are ahead.
Supervisor Jim Silva has made a crusade of diverting funds to reduce the debt. Debt reduction is desirable, but the county parks are at a critical juncture.
The county risks forfeiting their special character if it does not make them a priority. It must not cripple the parks by allowing them to slip beyond the scope of ordinary maintenance work.
Meanwhile, increased fees have put an extra burden on residents least able to afford alternative private recreation activities.
The bankruptcy recovery path taken was not without its price, both to the county’s natural assets and to its least vocal and affluent residents. But in paying that price, the county has an obligation to current and future residents not to shortchange park facilities.