Park Board tributes aren't forever

The following “Whistleblower” article appeared in the July 5, 2009 issue of the Star Tribune. It also appeared in the on-line version: “Park Board tributes aren’t forever”

In 2002, Vivian Mason decided to memorialize her late husband Jack in a classic way — adopting a park bench by the shore of the couple’s beloved Cedar Lake in Minneapolis. Mason thought the tribute, which involved paying a fee to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board in exchange for a plaque, didn’t have an expiration date.

Then, in May of this year, she got a letter from the Foundation for Minneapolis Parks informing her that she had 30 days to decide whether to pay $1,000 to renew her tribute for five years. If she missed the deadline, she would have to pay $2,500 to renew.

Mason, 70, doesn’t remember how much she paid seven years ago to endow the wood and concrete bench. But she was in a good position to understand the terms — she was, at that time, a Minneapolis Park Board commissioner.

“I thought I had it forever,” she said.

It’s likely that many of the donors behind the 156 memorial benches in Minneapolis parks are now finding out what Mason did: the park board has revamped its tribute program with an eye on raising money.

Over the years, the amounts charged for memorial trees and benches weren’t even covering the costs of maintenance, said Michael Schmidt, general manager at the park board. In February, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board turned over its donor and tribute program to the foundation, a relatively new private fundraising organization.

Going forward, the Park Board and the foundation will split the proceeds of the tributes 50-50. So the tributes, more than ever before, will be a fundraising vehicle for the park system, which is perpetually in search of new revenue.

The cost for endowing a new bench for five years: $5,000, or $7,500 if it needs a new pad. Planting a new tree: $1,000 if the park board chooses the location, $5,000 if the donor chooses it, $7,500 for a boulevard tree. Endowing a new picnic table: $9,000 for a six-seater, $12,500 for a 10-seater. A new bike rack: $3,000.

“We’re trusting that the … price points are at an appropriate level that an individual can make this lasting memorial to someone they love, and help out the park system at the same time,” Schmidt said.

Sheila Moar, marketing and projects manager for the parks foundation, described the $2,500 bench renewal price as covering “maintenance and repair of the benches by the Park Board, and the administrative, marketing and donor interactions costs of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation. Additionally, a portion of the funds is used to support our non-profit mission of advocating, supporting and visioning for the Minneapolis parks system and open green spaces in Minneapolis.” Moar added that the donation is tax-deductible.

Mason said she was surprised that the previous cost wasn’t even covering maintenance — the bench dedicated to her husband has gotten one quick paint job over the past seven years and nothing else, she said. Today, the bench’s slats are bare in spots, and someone carved initials in one of them. But Schmidt said the park board pools the money for maintenance of all of the benches in the program, and some have high repair costs when they’re vandalized or stolen.

Mason has decided not to renew and asked for the plaque to be returned. She found the tight deadline to get the one-time cheaper price to be “completely unreasonable.”
“I’m sure with a lot of the people who bought the benches, it was really important to them,” Mason said. “It’s going to be quite a shock.”