Don't Sap the Parks Budget

Public parks became Orange County's poorly treated stepchild in 1995 when the county began stripping $4 million annually from the Harbors, Beaches and Parks budget to help pay interest costs on $1.4 billion in bankruptcy-related debt. Each year that the budget is raided, parks and visitors suffer.

That makes the ongoing argument over how to disburse $14 million in state bond money even more disconcerting. Supervisors Tom Wilson and Bill Campbell are right to argue that Proposition 40 bond money is needed for maintenance at existing county parks.

County Supervisors Chris Norby and Chuck Smith counter that such a strategy would unfairly benefit park-rich South County and that the funds should be spread equally among municipalities throughout the county.

Supervisor Jim Silva, who, in the past, has supported forwarding the money to the county's existing regional park system, is expected to side with Campbell and Wilson at the Nov. 18 board meeting and vote to funnel the money into the Harbors, Beaches and Parks budget.

Supervisors also should hold the parks department accountable so the money doesn't end up funding some marginal project.

How to spend parks bond funds isn't a new argument. Supervisors last year shifted $16 million in Proposition 12 bond money to municipal governments, even though the cities also received their own fair share of bond funds. Cities again are getting their own share of Proposition 40 funds, so the county shouldn't penalize the already-anemic parks budget by shifting its share to the cities.

More parks clearly are needed on the northern side of the Costa Mesa Freeway because northern and central Orange County were developed decades ago when planners gave little thought to large-scale parklands. South County does benefit from subsequent planning that recognizes the need for more open space.

But the county shouldn't try to remedy that parks deficit at the expense of the existing parks system.

Booming populations and underfunded operating budgets will continue to plague all of the state's public parks. Proposition 12 supporters last year set the maintenance backlog at California's local and urban parks at $2.5 billion, with deferred maintenance and repair projects at state parks at more than $1 billion.

Wildfires that are scorching Southern California's mountain parks and open space will force county residents to stay closer to home. That will put even more pressure on local parks.

But those facilities won't serve anyone's recreational needs if they're not being maintained.

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