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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Role Reversal Granted To Janesville Rotary Gardens

Now that there may be a reversal of fortunes for Janesville's Rotary Gardens, the current Gardens management decided to request new lease provisions redefining the city's responsibility and role in fiscal policy and management operations. Keep in mind the Gardens are the lessee.

As a supporter of Rotary Gardens, I have seen how much sweat equity the volunteers and management at the Gardens have put in over the years. And I also know the Gardens are a positive asset for the city. They deserve a standing ovation. However...

Probably taking their cue from the obnoxious lease the Janesville city council granted to the WHP for the city's ice arena, I find myself at a loss with the general theme of their request for more control and placing the city and its' taxpayers in an even greater subservient role. For whatever their reasons, they appear to be building a fiscal firewall between themselves and the city.
Lease Changes Excerpts:
1. The Gardens would be able to make capital improvements and changes to City property without prior Common Council review or consent...

2. The Gardens would operate under self-control, with the Board and Director able to establish rules and procedures for the Gardens...

3. This lease has allowed the City the opportunity to assist with renovating/repairing garden buildings at our discretion; this section has been updated to include the Horticultural Building as one of the sites we may wish to improve. (section 4B)

4. The lease requires the City to use insurance proceeds to make repairs/replacements to the Gardens...

5. The Gardens may charge a fee to enter.

6. The City will no longer tell the Gardens how much fire insurance they need to purchase; rather, this decision will be left to the Gardens...
I particularly like No. 3 - taxpayers have been allowed the opportunity to assist...and we would like to grant them further opportunities with another building.

The trends are clear. Janesville taxpayers are being asked to foot the bill more and more for existing city structures and maintenance, while independent and private user entities reap direct benefits. At the same time, local residents are being shut out from utilizing the buildings their taxes built and maintained unless they pay an additional fee at the door. Sure, fees at the door are not uncommon, but the lessee is not repaying the city back for even minor services such as snow plowing. Any direct capital return to the city from many of these so-called public/private partnerships could not even pay the fair market property taxes on the parcel. Also, through extremely poor contract negotiations, general fund city trustees have been stripped of authority to recoup any capital outlays or share in the success and financial rewards.

During the city council meeting Monday discussing this lease change request, Councilman Bill Truman wryly asked, "Why does the city continue to snow plow the gardens parking lot?" The Gardens representative responded "because it's city property." That just about said it all.


Mary K said...

"They deserve a standing ovation, but ..."

But what? Like mom always said, nothing before the "but" is important - only what comes after.

Six points of change to their lease is somehow to be construed as small-minded selfishness and anti-community greed? Are you nuts?

Rotary is run on donations and grants and staffed in the main by volunteers. The ONLY thing the city offers RGB is the property it sits on - the self-same property that RBG has improved so beautifully, and so consistently.

Because of the current flap about the ice arena I can understand RBG's desire to keep years of work safe from incursion from pet city projects that could decimate all they have achieved.

RBG is a nationally recognized and highly regarded botanical garden, not a flower bed in front of City Hall. Local people visit, as do people from other states, even other countries. RBG houses champion species each year. When people come to visit RBG from out of state or out of the country they stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, shop in our stores. Spend real money.

RBG's budget runs in the negative each year because the City doesn't subsidize it, and nobody wants to pay to see it, yet the city (and apparently the community) is happy to shell out $85,000 per year for the albatross up the hill. (That's the ice arena in case I was too subtle.)

Large botanical gardens all over the state - even the country - charge admission. Those that are free usually exist like RBG does - on donations and the sweat of hundreds of volunteers. RBG didn't charge visitors for a long time, but financial stress inevitably took its toll. The gardens simply could not survive without more income. Now that RBG is charging admission there has been much outcry about how 'greedy' it's leaders have become. Truly, ignorance is bliss.

I have a suggestion for you - the scrivener of all things unjust and unfair. You want to do something truly revolutionary? Get hold of the real facts on how much is costs to operate RBG and where the money comes from. Tally up the volunteer hours and convert that to dollars. I think the results will stun you.

Yes, RBG exists on leased public land, but it is not a public facility. It is not maintained or operated by the city and Janesville doesn't provide any operating capital. NONE. Oh wait – the city plows the parking lots in the winter. Tally that up, too.

RBG brings people into Janesville by the busload. Senior groups take leisurely walks or are wheeled through the beauty and peace in their wheelchairs. Couples get married in gardens filled with blossoms and have their receptions in the large, lovely meeting room. School kids come and marvel at the flowers and learn about nature. Workshops and seminars are held there. The UW-Extension houses an all-volunteer Plant Health Advisory team in the Education Room that offers free advice to all comers. Adult education classes on landscaping, arboriculture, and dozens of other topics are held there every Thursday night in the fall.

You mentioned "financial rewards.." Get real. RBG has been running in the red for years because it chose not to enforce already existing gate fees. Current entry fees cost less than a burger and fries, or a movie. There's no time limit on a visit. There is volunteer staff available to assist visitors with plant identification. It's a fairytale place filled with magic and delight – worth every red cent.

As an RBG volunteer I was appalled that you, who I support so heartily and so often, would do this kind of dissection of the motives of this dedicated, vibrant group of people who have done nothing but good for this community.

Stop seeing evil around every corner. RBG deserved every lease concession it asked for. They're just trying to preserve what they have built. How in good conscience can you criticize that?

Lou Kaye said...

Who is attacking the vibrant group of volunteers? Not me. They have dozens of wonderful volunteers who dedicate hundreds of hours a year to beautify the place. I'm calling out the paid management on what I see as bricklaying a fiscal firewall. The Janesville community also has spent years floating the capital improvements AND the property tax bill for Rotary Gardens. It still does - it's on city property. They should have been charging admissions years ago and returning a real cash dividend to the taxpaying community.

Yet why would I want to know how unprofitable all this beauty is to city? To get more angry? Janesville is at the edge of a fiscal cliff and the last thing we need are for so-called public/partnerships that have survived over the years suddenly put up shields. Once again I have to clarify, I'm not criticizing the people especially not the volunteers. I'm criticizing the policy. City leaders (if we have any) have to stop letting the tail wag the dog.

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