The broke rescuing the broke: Plan to renovate Richmond park could be flawed, costly

COOLER TIMES: A pedestrian walks through Monroe Park in Richmond as a snow storm gets cranking. The city leases Monroe Park to cash-strapped nonprofit created for the park’s renovation.

By Kaitlyn Speer | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Richmond’s Monroe Park seems to be the park everyone says they want to keep, but nobody wants to pay for it.

After a unanimous City Council vote, Richmond plans to hand off half of the costs for Monroe Park’s renovations to a group that’s relatively broke and is relying solely on donations. In return, the Monroe Park Conservancy, created solely to renovate and maintain the park, gets to lease the park for $1 a year.

You read that right. The park that taxpayers already have funded is the conservancy’s for a whopping dollar a year.

$1 lease, $3 million short, Kaitlyn Spear explains.

http://watchdog.org/wp-content/blogs.dir/1/files/2014/06/How-Richmonds-good-intentions-have-left-a-park-without-money.mp3

The taxpayer-funded portion of the plan is supposed to be $3 million. Tamara Jenkins, spokeswoman with Richmond’s Department of Parks, Recreations, and Community Facilities, said the has been set aside, though the city’s long-term debt obligations is $2 billion, according to its most recent comprehensive annual financial report.

The conservancy is supposed to pick up the rest of the tab.

The conservancy, however, is a little pinched for cash right now. In 2012, it had gross receipts of $10,681.72, and $12,500 last year, according to financial statements filed with the IRS.

For now, it’s a case of the broke rescuing the broke.

The question is, will it work?

The conservancy group wants to complete its renovations by the UCI Road Championships in September 2015. That gives the city and its cash-strapped partner 15 months get find donors willing to give the money and complete the park’s renovation. After that,the park is the conservancy’s to use.

NEIGHBORS: Virginia Commonwealth University surrounds Monroe Park in Richmond.

Created in 2011, the Monroe Park Conservancy did not start fundraising until March, after the lease was finalized.

“We made some calls early on and it became apparent that until we had an agreement and deed of lease (for) Monroe Park in place with the city of Richmond and operating agreement with Virginia Commonwealth University, that no one was going to make a significant commitment,” said Mark S. Dray, a member of the Monroe Park Conservancy Board.

Virginia Commonwealth University, which surrounds the park, will provide maintenance for the park grounds. VCU, however, is not contributing money towards the $6 million project.

While city leaders said the conservancy group is the only option to save the park, Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow with the libertarian-leaning CATO Institute, said user fees are the better option, because donations can fluctuate just like tax dollars do. Plus, park management is most responsive to the preferences of those footing the bill.

“However, if the Monroe Park Conservancy doesn’t plan to charge user fees, I wouldn’t hold out a lot of hope that it will have better management,” O’Toole said. “Instead of relying on tax dollars, it will rely on donations, and donations fluctuate with economic booms and bust as much as taxes do.”

Kathryn Watson contributed to this story. Kaitlyn Speer is an intern at Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau and can be reached at kspeer@watchdog.org and @KSpeer11.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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