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In state parks uproar, Benicia keeps its cool -

Benicia’s financially struggling state parks, the only two in Solano County, could be getting a share of tens of millions of dollars found in a recent audit.

The two parks — Benicia Capitol State Historic Park and Benicia State Recreation Area — have continued to operate with reduced hours aided by the city and local volunteers, and local fundraising.

But revelations that state officials in Sacramento had been sitting on millions in unspent funds for years — money that could have been used to keep parks open and properly maintained — has caused outrage in Benicia and other California communities.

The director of the state Department of Parks and Recreation resigned and another official was fired after the irregularities came to light.

No misuses of the unspent funds have been reported, although allegations have been raised against other officials about salary increases from other state funds.

But there is at least $20 million available in the State Parks and Recreation Fund, according to the Vallejo Times-Herald newspaper.

The uncertainty led the California Legislature to impose a two-year freeze on additional state park closures in September.

State officials proposed closing 70 of California’s 280 parks — including the two in Benicia — in 2011 due to budget problems.

During the two-year reprieve, state officials will consider the possibility of local partnerships to keep parks open and maintained, parks department spokeswoman Vicky Waters told the newspaper.

“If we could put together a package which is a partnership with the state, then we might have access to some of the $20 million,” Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson told the newspaper.

“We need to get some of the repairs done,” Patterson said.

In the meantime, Benicia is spending city money to keep the capitol park open on a limited schedule but has withheld other funds it committed to helping keep the recreation area open five days a week, Patterson said.

The two Benicia parks represent milestones in state history, just before and just after California became part of the United States.

The capitol park celebrates the 13 months that Benicia was the capital of California from 1853 to 1854.

The state legislature moved permanently to Sacramento after leaving the small city on the Carquinez Strait and Suisun Bay.

The recreation area is located on acreage purchased by a Benicia pioneer from Mexican Gen. Mariano Vallejo, the wealthy official responsible for selling the land that became Benicia to city founders Robert Semple and Thomas Larkin in 1847.

The nearby city of Vallejo, Solano County’s largest, was named for the Mexican general.

California became part of the United States in 1850.

Nathan Salant is based in San Francisco, California, United States of America, and is an Anchor for Allvoices.

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