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State taps into off-road park trust fund to save other parks

November 12, 2012 10:25:24 PM PST
More than four decades ago, off roaders set aside money to preserve places for them to ride. However, the state has been tapping into that fund and it's leaving many people feeling like they are being left in the dust.

The Metcalf Off-Highway Vehicle Park is one of the most popular recreation areas in Santa Clara County. Every year, thousands of people come here to ride trails. But because of statewide budget cuts, millions of dollars designated to run off-road parks may now be shifted to other parks statewide, leaving parks like Metcalf to find other sources of funding.

"We've been pretty fortunate in the funding we've asked for. If it gets reduced we will have to look at various options - you know funding strategies to keep the park open," Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation spokesperson Tamara Clark said.

In the early 1970's users of off-highway vehicles or OHV's created a savings account for the future parks. They created a trust fund paid for with registration fees on off-road vehicles and taxes on gasoline.

"You buy gas, you pay taxes on the gas, those taxes come back to the program to maintain the roads and trails you are recreating on," California Off-Highway Vehicle Division spokesperson Phil Jenkins said.

Jenkins runs the state's OHV program, a division of the state parks system. Over the years, the OHV trust has been a target because it is so well funded. It currently has $42 million in its account. Over the past four years, the OHV department has loaned the state $123 million with the promise that it would be paid back.

"Last year was the first year that they diverted money that was coming to the program and diverted it to another location, which means they don't have to pay that money back," Jenkins said.

That money went to the state's general fund. Some legislators say the OHV trust is over-funded.

"State parks are going to have to change the way it's done business it's just a different day, the resources just aren't there that they used to count on," State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, said.

Simitian co-authored legislation that allowed for the money to be diverted from the state OHV division to general park fund to help save 70 state parks from closing.

"We were able to do a fairly good job of holding most of that program together, 95 percent of the funding is not even at risk and the remaining 5 percent may or may not be there for that program in the course of the coming year," Simitian said.

Simitian's legislation was signed by the governor and gives the state park's department the authority to use the money designated for the off-road parks.

"In essence, they've taken all the funds that have been generated through OHV use, through registration fees and done what they've wanted," California Off- Road Vehicle Association spokesperson Amy Granat said.

As it turns out, the money wasn't needed this year because other funding was found for the state parks.

Back at Metcalf, off-roaders worry their savings account is being tapped to bail out the state's financial crisis.

"I don't even think they should be allowed to touch the money and they keep robbing from us and nobody wants to stand up for the motorcyclist," one off-road enthusiast said.

"If I don't balance my checkbook, I can't go to my neighbor and take his money," another off-road enthusiast said.

The County park's department says that it's commited to keeping Metcalf open.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the park will remain open, it's just a matter of how do we do that, Clark said.

Earlier this year, the head of state parks department resigned when it was revealed that while parks were slated to close, the OHV division had more than $100 million set aside to buy and manage land for off-road vehicles. That fund is where state accountants found more than half of a $54 million hidden surplus.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel.


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