From cabin to castle

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San Franciscans love Camp Mather just the way it is, if its popularity is any indicator. They love the stuffy dining hall, the rustic wooden cabins, murky Birch Lake, and the basic layout of a camp established in the 1920s for the workers who built the nearby Hetch Hetchy dam.

Families are eagerly awaiting the reservation notices being mailed out this week by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department telling them if and when they’ll be spending seven days there this summer. But the Friends of Camp Mather have been less than pleased with other news about their favorite vacation spot.

Persistent fears that Rec and Park intends to privatize the camp — which started in 2003 when the department asked for a study on the subject — led to a Board of Supervisors resolution in January declaring that the city “opposes working with private sector property developers on any plans for Camp Mather in the future.”

Rec and Park head Yomi Agunbiade told the supervisors the department “has no plans to sell or contract the camp at this point” and “there is no proposal to fully privatize Camp Mather now.” Such qualifiers were hardly comforting to the Friends of Camp Mather, who have been having a hard time getting straight answers from the department about its current financial situation and its plans for the future.

We now understand their frustration. Last month the Guardian made a Sunshine Ordinance request of the department to get documents that break down the $20 million figure Rec and Park has been using publicly to quantify the current capital needs at Camp Mather.

In our back-and-forth with department spokesperson Rose Dennis, we learned the department is now estimating that Camp Mather needs closer to $36 million. And she told us that “if we don’t get this money, we will have to shut it down, and then the kids won’t have a place to go.”

Yet the department is unable to provide a basic account for its claimed capital needs, except for a database filled with numbers for which there appears to be little support. Many of these numbers seem wildly inflated and are contradicted by other Rec and Park documents.

It’s unclear exactly what’s going on here. Maybe the big numbers are scare tactics or inflations designed to push the $150 million general-obligation bond that the department hopes to send to voters next year. (In the bond, Rec and Park claims to need a staggering $1.7 billion.) Or maybe, as Dennis said, they are “preliminary numbers” that are likely to be pared back and shouldn’t have been made public in the first place.

But whatever the case, it’s understandable that some Camp Mather regulars are freaking out and fearing their favorite vacation spot is in jeopardy. And this whole episode raises questions about what’s going on at Rec and Park.

It should have been a simple request to have a public agency break down the millions of dollars it says it needs. But that didn’t prove to be the case either for us or for the Friends of Camp Mather, despite city laws that require full disclosure of all public documents, whether the agency wants to oblige or not.

“At this time we have not wanted to provide detailed information on each property, but we have provided the ‘overview’ information (tab 1) to the Friends of Mather as per their request (which may have led to the questions). The Comet data is being reviewed right now and is not finalized,” Rec and Park planner Karen Mauney-Brodek wrote in a March 8 e-mail to Dennis, which we obtained with our Sunshine request.

That attachment includes five capital-need figures: $9.4 million for all cabin buildings, $7.8 million for all other buildings, $16.2 million for the park site, $2.6 million for bathing facilities, and $479,971 for storage structures — a total of $36.6 million. It also includes a second column with “facility value” figures, which differ little from the first column, but it does not include an explanation of the numbers or what they’re derived from, other than “COMET data,” which stands for Condition Management Estimation Technology.

We pushed for and ultimately received a fuller account of that data and a spreadsheet assigning repair and replacement costs to facilities all over Camp Mather. But that only raised more questions for which we still haven’t received good answers.

The COMET data indicated that some of the simple wooden cabins, which are essentially shacks with no foundation or plumbing, would cost up to $199,068 to replace, more than the price of building a large single-family home. This is in stark contrast to a 2003 study the department commissioned from Bay Area Economics, which estimated the cost of each cabin at about $16,000. There was no explanation in the document for such astronomical figures.

“Most campers would be distressed to come to camp and find all the historic cabins completely revamped,” Robin Sherrer, president of the Friends of Camp Mather, told the Guardian.

When asked to justify and explain the numbers, Dennis talked about “escautf8g contingency factors” and used other bureaucratic jargon but was unable to simply say why a $16,000 cabin would suddenly cost $200,000. But we did learn the COMET data had come from a study by the local firm 3D/I.

We asked for that study, but Dennis said the department didn’t have it. Any day now, Dennis said, 3D/I will be giving the department “10 huge binders” of data it developed for various Rec and Park properties from November 2006 to January 2007. Officials will then process that data to present to the Rec and Park Commission in May or June. It is interesting to note that 3D/I also computed the data for a long list of Rec and Park projects, not just Camp Mather.

Among the other capital needs the department is claiming: almost $100 million for the yacht harbor, $102 million for a recreation center, $150 million for playgrounds, and a whopping $572 million for Golden Gate Park.

That list was scheduled to go to the Recreation and Park Commission on March 15 to support a discussion of the $150 million general-obligation bond that the department is seeking, but the list was pulled at the last minute because it needs more documentation.

As Dennis told us, “The president of the commission had it pulled because it was a little sparse.” *