A red-ink exhibit for kids

first_imgThe Children’s Museum of Los Angeles has been bogged down by poor planning, little oversight and lack of donations, raising concern that local taxpayers might get stuck with the bill, according to an audit released Wednesday. The cost has ballooned to $53 million for construction and exhibits for the San Fernando Valley’s first major museum, pitched to city leaders seven years ago as a $10 million public-private partnership. Public dollars have covered nearly 70 percent of the cost so far, and the building is expected to be completed within a few weeks. Now, the museum’s board needs to drum up $22 million in less than two years to install the exhibits for an opening by March 2009. With less than half that amount raised in seven years, the audit questions whether the museum board can find the money in time and warns that the city might have to step in again with more funds. “This audit is a wake-up call to the mayor and council to say we need to look at this,” said Controller Laura Chick, who conducted the audit. “We have not been properly overseeing this project. It’s been a hands-off approach. “We need a children’s museum in this city. The taxpayers have given a whole lot of their money to get it, and we’re in a shaky situation, and I think we have to prop up this agency more.” Chick recommends that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council develop a plan in case the museum board can’t find the money to complete and operate the museum, although a city takeover is not a prospect that would sit well with her or Villaraigosa. “It’s clearly in the city’s best interest to have a viable children’s museum in the San Fernando Valley,” said Matt Szabo, a spokesman for the mayor. “The mayor prefers that the children’s museum be run and operated by a community- based nonprofit.” Museum Executive Director Cecilia Aguilera Glassman said fundraising has accelerated recently, and next month she expects to announce the largest donation the museum has ever received. “That would go a long way to comforting people as to the financial feasibility of the museum,” said Glassman, who was hired six months ago to spark fundraising. “I do not believe the city will ever be in a position of having to take over the museum.” The audit was requested in May by Councilman Richard Alarc n after contractors threatened to walk off the job unless they were paid $3.3 million they were owed. The council approved a rare $1.75 million emergency loan from the city’s reserve fund, on the condition that the museum match the loan in 30 days, which it did. The bailout put the spotlight on the museum’s failure to attract private donations. Some $19 million of the nearly $29 million raised so far has come from city and state funds. Alarc n, who now represents the Northeast Valley, said he expects the museum will step up its fundraising efforts but agrees with Chick’s recommendation that the city needs a backup plan. “If things get bad …, I believe we certainly could consider the possibility of taking ownership and managing it,” he said, noting that the city manages the Los Angeles Zoo and other public facilities. Chick’s audit puts the blame on the museum board and city officials for the project cost. The museum board spent more than $4.8 million on project designs that were later scrapped. And board members chose an innovative, environmentally friendly design that cost $30 million when they only had $20 million available, according to the audit. Later, the city released Proposition K park funds for construction even though the board could not show it had the money or ability to operate the facility once the building was finished. The museum has been a favorite project of former City Councilman Alex Padilla. When its board closed the museum’s downtown site in 2000, he persuaded members to move the facility to the Hansen Dam Recreation Area in the Northeast Valley. The city-owned land is leased to the museum for $1 a year. City officials told auditors they were advised that the project was politically supported by Padilla and that they should take a hands-off approach and let the museum staff oversee it. “City managers in charge of the administration of the program indicated that, while they felt uncomfortable about releasing the funds to the (Children’s Museum of Los Angeles), the CMLA had significant political support that made it harder for them to withhold any funding,” the audit found. Padilla said the Proposition K oversight committee followed the rules in awarding the museum funding. “Nowhere does it say rules were broken or qualifications not met to get the funding,” Padilla said. “The fundraising challenges were certainly no news to anybody. Every time there has been a crisis or a shortfall, the museum manages to overcome.” [email protected] (213) 978-0390160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img read more