San Joaquin County’s parks and Micke Grove Zoo have been financially mismanaged, according to reports released earlier this week by the San Joaquin County Civil Grand Jury.

 The findings of the grand jury investigation state that the county’s parks and recreation division and county supervisors have been using trust funds to balance the department’s budget despite knowing the risk of draining the trust accounts.

The grand jury began its investigation after receiving several complaints about the use of funds from the Parks Trust Fund, and during the investigation more complaints surfaced alleging inadequate staffing and funding at Micke Grove Zoo.

The grand jury found that money from the Parks Trust Fund has been used to finance the day-to-day operations of the department.

“Ten years of borrowing has resulted in the Parks Trust Funds being depleted to the point where they can no longer provide the level of support needed to maintain the parks system,” the grand jury concluded.

According to the reports, parks staff and supervisors had known for nearly a decade that borrowing from the Parks Trust Fund would eventually lead to its depletion.

“We try to do as much as we can but it is always a struggle to balance the budget. Every program needs some level of funding,” Supervisor Chuck Winn said. “The parks staff has always been aggressive in their pursuit of state and federal grants, and they have pursued them with great vigor.”

The report recommends that supervisors and the county parks and recreation department “develop and implement a plan for managing the parks system within a structurally balanced and sustainable budget.”

The county is in the midst of adopting a $1.8 million budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year, which begins July 1. According to documents, parks and recreation spending in the proposed budget is $6.4 million, or four-tenths of 1 percent of the entire budget.

The grand jury reports that in the past decade, the parks budget has been reduced by 16 percent while the county budget has grown by 39 percent.

Winn said that the county board is expected to discuss the grand jury findings at the upcoming San Joaquin County board meeting.

“It won't be discussed at length. We will need to reach out to the parks staff and have them present a full presentation regarding its financial figures, and from there we will be able to find a direction to move in,” Winn said.  

The report by the grand jury does not recommend the county pursue staffing cuts, because the staffing levels at the parks are already low and they believe cuts could prove to be more detrimental than productive.

“Despite a strong recommendation ... that staffing cuts would be inappropriate, the Parks and Recreations Division has continued to eliminate positions. While “doing more with less” is admirable, it is apparent that the Parks and Recreation Division is at the point of “doing less with less,” especially considering the additional staffing cuts in 2018-2019 and the rising costs of services and maintenance.”

The Micke Grove Zoo is also believed to have suffered from “inadequate funding and outdated facilities” for years according to the grand jury report. “Loss of accreditation, a failed Master Plan, and multiple departmental reorganizations have further compounded the challenges for this county-owned facility,” the report says.

Among the recommendations are that the zoo seeks “affordable accreditation,” that it renegotiates its operating agreement with the Micke Grove Zoological Society, and that it should pursue funding sources to improve the zoo in order to preserve the park’s integrity.

“These recommendations will not only help to improve Micke Grove Zoo today but establish a vision and blueprint for the Zoo in years to come,” the report says.

The grand jury is hoping to pursue action as responses come in from the county board and the county parks and recreation department. The agencies are expected to respond to the grand jury report in the next 90 days.

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