Seventy–that’s a big number. Seventy is the number of state parks that were on the state budget chopping block, threatening to close their gates back on July 1. Turns out there was an even bigger number that could have prevented any threats of closure: $54 million.

Earlier this year, Governor Jerry Brown approved the park closures as a way to save money, a projected $22 million.

Pio Pico State Park in Whittier, was one of them. But thanks to the community and the city council, enough money was raised to save it, at least for one more year. (See CaFwd video)

In fact, as word spread of the closures, folks in each of the communities where a state park was set to close, rallied together to raise money to keep some of them open temporarily. Eventually most were saved from closure temporarily when lawmakers added funding to the parks budget at the last minute.

But wait a minute. What’s this? The Sacramento Bee recently uncovered the department is sitting on nearly $54 million in surplus money for as long as 12 years–years when there were job cuts and cutbacks in park hours.

Amid the new developments, director Ruth Coleman and the number two person in command, resigned.

Upon first reading this story, we at California Forward were naturally curious. Promoting transparency and accountability in government is a big part of what we do.

What’s going on here?

If there really is a surplus of $54 million in the parks budget, the state controller and the department of finance should have known about it. The state parks department does not have its hands on its own money. If they wanted to allocate funding to a certain project, they would have to first ask the finance department if the funding is there.

If you didn’t know—the Department of parks has series of operating funds. The two major ones in the story, the Parks and Recreation Fund and the Off Highway Vehicle Fund, are listed on the state department of finance’s website. The department of finance website shows reserves for the last three years. But these funds could already encumbered, meaning already committed to future projects.

So, where was the surprise surplus in all this, since the state controller and the Department of Finance should have had it in their books? The story becomes not merely about government transparency, but about what enabled the department to hide such a big amount.

The Sac Bee reported:

“The moves come in the wake of a scandal, revealed by The Bee on Sunday, in which a deputy director at State Parks carried out a secret vacation buyout program for employees at department headquarters last year. That buyout cost the state more than $271,000.”

John Laird, secretary of the state Natural Resources Agency, which oversees State Parks, told The Bee it remains unclear who is to blame for the surplus, and whether it is linked to the vacation buyout.