Budget cuts target California Conservation Corps

The Schwarzenegger administration's recession-driven budget would dismantle the California Conservation Corps, an iconic state agency that became a national model for tapping at-risk youth, and shift the CCC's functions to a dozen local county conservation programs funded largely by nonprofits.

"This proposal will provide additional support for the 12 certified nonprofit local conservation corps by eliminating the state-level Conservation Corps and increasing state grant funding to the local corps," the administration said in its summary of looming budget changes. The state temporarily would provide $10 million to the locals, instead of the current $7 million.

The budget reductions, described by the administration as a $17 million "realignment," would result in the transfer of a myriad of CCC functions to the local groups, which rely heavily on volunteers. The locals' tasks include traditional environmental projects, such as tree-planting and trail-cutting, but the CCC also fights fires: In June, the CCC put some 90 crews on the fire lines.

"I totally think this is a bad idea," said Bruce Saito, a former CCC official now with the Los Angeles County conservation corps. "We talk about economic stimulus packages, so we need to bring in and employ more young people, who historically face the toughest and most challenging obstacles."

"CCC has many years of experience fighting fires and responding to emergencies, which the local nonprofit corps do not have. They do not have the capacity to respond the way the state does, and that's a very important part of what they do."

Shifting functions to privately funded volunteer organizations is consistent with the Schwarzenegger administration's focus on volunteerism and makes fiscal sense, the administration said. But the elimination of the CCC and a strengthened policy on volunteerism won't hurt the government's ability to handle emergencies, including fires.

"We are still going to fight fires and we are going to keep people safe," said Sandy Cooney, a spokesperson for the Resources Agency. "It is absolutely important to stress that we are going to do that." Cooney said that in emergencies, the state would reach out to local volunteers and others – as it has in the past.

"No one is being critical of the CCC," he added. "but we've got a $42 billion deficit and we've got to make decisions about where we can try to save money. The CCC is an expensive operation," Cooney said.

Last year, Schwarzenegger signed an executive order creating a new cabinet position of service and volunteering – a move he said at the time was unique among the states. The news release announcing the appointment also noted that the idea was supported by the governor's wife, Maria Shriver, as well as U.S. Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and John McCain of Arizona, who were then campaigning for president. To head the volunteer effort, Schwarzenegger created a $175,000-a-year position and appointed Karen Baker, a Sacramentan with experience in the volunteerism and nonprofits, to the job. Baker, foregoing a pay hike because of the state's fiscal problems, would receive $130,132, the governor said.

The 1,300-member CCC, signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 1976, offers minimum wages, rigorous work and training for people 18 to 25. The California program was inspired by the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal projects, which was created to provide public-service work during the Great Depression.

Brown himself described the CCC as a "a combination Jesuit seminary, Israeli kibbutz, and Marine Corps boot camp." Brown named the late B.T. Collins, a Vietnam war veteran who lost a leg and hand in combat, to head the CCC. Collins, who became something of a Capitol legend, was credited with turning the Corps into a model for similar programs in other states. The CCC's motto is "Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions."

Brown, a Democrat, later named Collins, a Republican, to serve as his chief of staff. After his stint with Brown, Collins -known in the Capitol as "Hook" – served as a member of the Assembly representing a Sacramento district.

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