June 17, 2008
Taxpayers are out another $377,499
Although an agreement to establish a children’s museum in Union County was entered into with much fanfare in 2003, recently the county very quietly terminated their agreement with the Children’s Museum of Central New Jersey (CMCNJ) after blowing through $377,499.
Of what was to be a $1,00,000 grant the CMCNJ had received an initial payment of $500,000 for seed money to better their fund raising capabilities. They spent $377,499 during the period of August 2003 through March 2007 on efforts to locate the museum in Union County with $181,052 spent to locate the museum at a Liberty Hall Museum site. The balance of the money $196,4456 was spent trying to locate the museum elsewhere in Union County. The CMCNJ has returned the unspent $122,501 of the $500,000 grant money.
The county and the CMCNJ have agreed that the Children’s Museum will return approximately $200,000 under terms and conditions that might as well state “When Pigs Fly”. The $377,499 is gone for good.
Although the county wasn’t recognized for blowing through $377,499 tax dollars, with little to no accountability, the termimation agreement incredulously states that if the CMCNJ “continues as an ongoing entity and should it succeed in locating and operating a children's museum anywhere else in New Jersey, the CMCNJ has agreed to recognize the Union County Freeholders as a founding donor and to undertake appropriate commemorative and programming recognition for the county’s contribution.”
All the freeholders contributed was the tax payer's money. Their is no evidence that they, or any employee of the county was overseeing the CMCNJ's efforts.
An Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request seeking all correspondence, including but not limited to reports, letters and emails for the period of January 2001 to present between the CMCNJ and any member of the Union County freeholder board, county manager, and Open Space Trust Fund administrators was returned NO DOCUMENTS TO PROVIDE.
According to the minutes of the monthly museum trustee meetings, no freeholder, nor the county manager ever attended a meeting. The meeting minutes show a one-time visit from the Open Space Trust Fund Administrator on January 23, 2006. The responsible parties for this $377,499 loss of tax dollars is the county manager George Devanney, his wife the former Open Space Trust Fund Administrator Angie Devanney, current administrator Victoria Drake Durbin and all nine Freeholders especially the ones that were named as trustees to the CMCNJ, namely freeholders Debora Scanlon, Alexander Mirabella, Angel Estrada and Daniel Sullivan.
The county freeholders unanimously passed Resolution #650-03 on June 19, 2003. The reso authorized the county manager, George Devanney, to enter into an agreement with the Children’s Museum of Central NJ (CMCNJ) of Westfield, NJ, to provide grant funding in the amount of $1,000,000, from the Union County Open Space, Recreation and Historic Preservation Trust Fund. At the time the county manager’s wife, Angie Devanney, was the administrator of the trust fund. This was for preliminary support toward the development of a Children’s Museum. This $1,000,000 was seed money. In 2003, the project was projected to cost $12 million to complete.
Meeting minutes obtained through the OPRA shows the CMCNJ board of trustees met 9 times in 2004; 5 times in 2005 and 1 time in 2006. The minutes show that appeals were made to trustees to contribute to the cause. Excerpt from mintues: Only 9 trustees have made gifts this fiscal year…It is a requirement of the Trusteeship to contribute financially according to one’s ability to do so. If you haven’t contributed yet, please do so before the end of the fiscal year, June 30. It is very bad form to ask others to make contributions when our own Board does not do so…..
In a Worrall Community Newspaper article dated August 7, 2003 then editor Mark Hyrbna quoted Freeholder Mirabella, who was chairman of the trust fund committee, at the time said the county’s contribution will help the organization get started with serious fund-raising. “It’s not a concern because I don’t think they’ve rally started fund-raising,” Mirabella said of the group’s fund-raising to date. “I don’t think they got outta the blocks yet.” This is a group that has a good vision, it knows what it wants to do.”
At the time documents filed with the state, the CMCNJ had raised $17,615, with all but $4,000 in “direct public support,” while spending $11,958.80 for “management and general expenses, leaving a balance of $5,656.10. The CMCNJ was aiming to raise between $10 million and $12 million for the project, with an expected timeline of three to five years before a facility would be in operation.
“They seemed to have some pretty good ideas of where they’re getting money from,” Freeholder Mary Ruotolo, who was chairman of the Open Space Trust Fund Committee in 2002 said. “It’s much easier to fund-raise when you have seed money; then fund-raising becomes a better sell.” “It’s certainly not our intention to pay for the construction of a museum” Ruotolo said.
In a Worrall Community Newspaper article dated May 20, 2004, it was explained that representatives of the children’s museum report to the county on a quarterly basis. They must provide reports of what they spent so the county can see if the m money is being spent in a way that is consistent with the Open Space Trust fund. “If they haven’t totally pent the $250,000 yet, they’re not permitted to come back to us for the next round of funding,” said Open Space Trust Fund Administrator and wife of county manager Angie Devanney.
By early 2007 the CMCNJ exhausted its efforts to find a suitable location for the museum in Union County, event though its board and stakeholders remained committed to locating the museum somewhere in central or northern New Jersey. The CMCNJ notified the freeholders that it would discontinue its efforts to site the museum in Union County and provided the freeholders with an accounting of grant funds.
Design & Feasibility $358,599
Accounting Services $12,650
Legal Services $6,250
Total: $377,499 – not to be reimbursed to taxpayers
$196,466 was spent trying to locate the museum elsewhere in Union County. The CMCNJ has agreed to return the money under conditions that seem to be impossible. But rest assured if they do successfully open a museum our trusty freeholders will be on hand for a photo op. I don’t expect any public comment until the pigs fly.
CMCNJ By Laws
Worrall Article 2003
Worrall Article 2005
Memo of Understanding
CMCNJ Termination of Memo of Understanding
CMCNJ Trustee and Committee names
CMCNJ 2004 Minutes
CMCNJ 2005 Minutes
CMCNJ 2006 Minutes