Can private funding save public institutions?

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Turlock Lake will be run by a public-private partnership (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Last week it was announced that California State Parks would contract out the running of three of its 278 parks to a private Utah company. The state budget squeeze has 70 of the state’s parks slated for closing, but at least 30 of them will now remain open due to a mix of private and non-profit funding that’s replacing money cut from the state’s general fund.

In 1979, California’s state parks received 91 percent of their budget from the state’s general fund. As of July 1st of this year, that number will be down to just 29 percent. The parks have replaced some of that funding by tapping countless non-profit groups and about 34,000 volunteers (many of these are retirees that only work a few hours a week and can’t replace trained staff).

Park entrance and campground fees have also been increased – just the fees in our higher education system – to make up for some of the lost state funding. And upkeep and

Brannan Island was scheduled for closure, but will be operated by a private company

services have been drastically reduced. (Listen to Warren Olney’s show on state parks, here.)

This has been a common theme in our recent reporting on “Which Way LA?” and “To the Point.

Take the Pomona public library. Like many libraries around the state, it has seen its operating hours and personnel slashed in the last few years. The Pomona city council was scheduled to vote on closing the library last week, but with an estimated 500 protesters on hand to boo the vote, it was rescheduled for today and budget alternatives are being considered. (Update: n Tuesday,  Pomona City Council members approved a budget that will keep the library open).

Pomona is not alone. Salinas was set to close its library. Only a last-minute infusion of private money kept the doors open. And many public libraries around the state may not have closed down completely, but they have greatly reduced their operating hours and number of employees. And late fees have been increased.

On Friday’s “To the Point,” we focused on the United Nations “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro. In her speech at the summit, Hillary Clinton claimed the following interesting fact: in the 1960s, about 70 percent of economic assistance to developing nations came from western governments. Today, it’s about 13 percent. The good news, she said, was that even though many governments have reduced their support, the development budgets have increased due to private investment. (Listen to that show here.)

Public money vs.  private money is the source of an ongoing and fundamental political debate. As a society we have to decide what we value and whether and how we choose to pay for it. Recently, that debate seems to be touching many aspects of our public life, like public libraries, public state parks, and public education.