Funding freeze halts environmental projects across California

Commissions and nonprofits charged with conserving parks, wildlife, water and mountain areas of the state are at risk of laying off staff or closing since the state stopped funding last month.

From the Los Angeles Times
By Jordan Rau

January 21, 2009

Reporting from Sacramento — If swimmers in Santa Monica Bay bump into trash or bacteria this summer, one culprit will be California’s budget impasse.

Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of voter-approved projects have been halted because of the state’s financial problems. That includes $12 million that the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission was counting on to prevent dirty storm water and filthy runoff from draining into the bay.

“People expect to be able to enjoy the beach and not come home sick,” said state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), chairwoman of the state Senate Water and Natural Resources Committee.

The money freeze has immobilized construction of new biking trails along the Santa Ana River in San Bernardino and Orange counties. It has stopped plans to tear down the Matilija Dam in Ventura County and restore the sediment-filled Matilija reservoir. It has impeded efforts to boost the populations of salmon and steelhead trout off the coast of Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

The halting of such projects is one of the most concrete results of California’s cash crunch.

Last month the state’s top financial officials froze all state projects that rely on borrowed money. The funds for the environmental projects come mostly from four bond measures approved by voters since 2000.

In all, more than 750 environmental projects in Los Angeles County and the four surrounding counties have had their funding, totaling $420 million, stopped, according to an analysis of state records. Environmental projects dominate the list, which also includes the construction and improvement of recreation and performing arts centers, museums and tennis courts.

“The will of the people has been completely ignored,” said Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay, a nonprofit devoted to Southern California’s coastal waters that has had its funding frozen. “Overwhelmingly, these bond measures got approved . . . by the people of the state of California.”

In most cases, the freeze has meant postponing plans for new roads, dams and schools. But many of the environmental projects are ongoing efforts being done through nonprofits charged with conserving parks, wildlife, water and mountain areas of the state.

Mike Chrisman, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s secretary for Natural Resources, said most of these projects are not going to be done until the state’s financial problems are resolved.

“What we need is a state budget to honor our commitment to our communities,” he said.

The freeze has dried up funds for about 1,100 nonprofits and commissions, according to the state Natural Resources agency. Some are laying off staff and contractors as a result.

The Resource Conservation District in Ventura County, which relies on the grants for 80% of its projects, may have to lay off staff and default on consulting contracts because of the freeze in funds, according to a letter that district manager Mark Melvin sent to state officials Monday.

“We put our heart and soul into these projects to repair and restore the environment, work with agriculture on water efficiencies, storm water runoff and erosion control,” he wrote. “Now that heart is being ripped out.”

A survey of 68 conservation groups in the Sierra Nevada — many of which count on state bond money — found that 10 have already laid off staff and 26 have laid off contractors. The survey, by the Sierra Nevada Alliance, a network of 105 regional conservation groups, found that two groups have closed their doors completely, said Patricia Hickson, a program associate at the alliance, which is based in South Lake Tahoe.

“We’re just seeing the beginning of what could be the closure of many organizations,” Hickson said.

Shelley Luce, executive director of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, said the freezing of the bond money exacerbates the broader problems of the recession, because contractors are not getting paid.

“That was $12 million that was directly going to pay people in construction, engineering, design fields, environmental sciences. It was also buying materials for the projects,” Luce said.

Most programs that rely on borrowing are likely to remain frozen until Schwarzenegger and the Legislature agree on how to close the state’s budget gap, because investors are currently unwilling to lend California money.

Even if that situation is resolved, the state could have trouble borrowing because of continuing problems in international credit markets.

Meanwhile, Luce said, her nonprofit’s staffers are in jeopardy. “We have a few months,” she said, “before we have to start laying people off.”