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Why is there no green for the gardens?

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
October 21, 2008
— Members of the Rotary Gardens board wonder why the gardens get no city money while the Tallman House and a proposed children's museum are in line for subsidies.

To help close a perennial budget gap, the gardens board is preparing to charge a $5 entry fee.


A $58,000 subsidy for the Tallman House is recommended to continue in the 2009 Janesville city budget.


And the city council voted Aug. 12 to subsidize a proposed children's museum with up to $125,000 a year.


The Rotary Gardens board was stunned by that recent decision, board chairwoman Sally Edelman said.


"Our first thought was shock because it was such a large amount of money, not only upfront money but ongoing money for an organization that already predicted they will be running at a loss," Edelman said.


The gardens received a $20,000 city subsidy for several years, but that ended about a decade ago.


It was made clear to the Rotary Gardens board through a city liaison that there was no city money available for the gardens, Edelman said.


So the board Aug. 25 asked the council to approve a $5 entry fee, the first in the gardens' history.


The board had long resisted a fee but found it increasingly difficult to fill a $110,000 hole in its operating budget. Members figure the $5 fee will raise about $78,000.


Board members wonder why Rotary Gardens is being treated differently than the Tallman House and the children's museum.


Former city manger Steve Sheiffer suggested last year that the Tallman House subsidy be phased out. Even so, full funding is proposed this year.


"We're glad to see them get the money," Edelman said.


But Rotary Gardens also brings people into the city, she said.


"It does make it really hard to understand why they are eligible for money and we are not," Edelman said.


The final straw was the recent inclusion of $50,000 for a skatepark in the 2009 city budget.


"Not because I have anything against the skatepark," Edelman said. "Kids need a place to go. But how do you not support Rotary Gardens when you have money to support the skatepark that is not going to be bringing money into the city and is not an ongoing organization?"


The council also recently voted to spend up to $1.4 million on baseball and softball fields at the Youth Sports complex. The skatepark and ball fields are one-time capital expenses rather than ongoing subsidies.


Edelman said she and the Rotary board do not begrudge any group money.


"All these things are wonderful," she said.


But the Rotary Gardens board likely would reconsider its decision to charge an entry fee if it received a subsidy to help close its shortfall.


Board members worry that fees would discourage visitors, especially those who are local. A $5 donation always has been suggested for entrance, and people who come with bus tours already pay that cost.


Although they don't have firm attendance numbers, staff say they already have noticed a decrease in visitors, possibly because people think the $5 fee already is in place, Edelman said.


And Edelman said it would cost money to charge money.


"Frankly, charging admission is a real hassle for us," Edelman said.


Signs cost money, and the board will never have enough money to securely fence the gardens. Events such as weddings would muddy the admission fee system.


Edelman said people generally have been understanding about the need for a fee. And the board has looked into a maximum rate for families and also free and reduced days.


"But it would be wonderful to be able to keep the garden free," she said.


"Again, I certainly don't begrudge anyone getting funds," Edelman said. "I think they're all great things, and cities should provided these things for kids.


"It's just that if everybody else is considered for funds, we need to take a look at Rotary Gardens."



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