Building a new city swimming pool is exciting news. It’s not nearly as sexy to pay for a new roof on a community center.
It’s fun to show off a new fountain. But buying a replacement motor for an old fountain? Now that’s boring.
Finding money in a city budget for maintenance is often a chore. And long-term repair and maintenance is often the first cut during an economic downturn or is easily diverted when something else seems more important.
For five years, Lincoln keno funds, traditionally used for park maintenance and repair projects, were diverted to the Antelope Valley Project.
In recent years, there’s been a big push to create endowments that will be used for the unsexy future maintenance of new park projects.
The city has $11.1 million in endowments, which are invested. The interest is used for maintenance or special programs for 33 projects. Most city endowments are handled by the Lincoln Parks Foundation.
The first endowment may have been created for the Veterans Memorial Garden, where a portion of the sale of bricks honoring veterans has gone into an endowment fund since 1993, said Lynn Johnson, Parks and Recreation Department director.
In recent years, most major fundraising efforts have incorporated an endowment, including Tower Square, Sherman Field, Peterson Park pickleball courts, Centennial Mall and the new dog runs.
The city has also been creating endowments for new projects with tax dollars. And more than one-third of the money for endowments — $4.3 million — has come from tax dollars, a testament to Mayor Chris Beutler’s belief in protecting current investments by setting aside money for future repair and maintenance, according to J.J. Yost with Parks and Rec.
The city has contributed more than $2.3 million in tax dollars to endowments on several major projects, including the N Street bike path, Gallery Alley, West Haymarket, Trago Park, the Haines Branch Prairie Corridor.
The West Haymarket Joint Public Agency, a quasi-government group, also put $2 million — primarily from occupation taxes on restaurant food — into an endowment for the long-term maintenance and repair of outdoor items purchased by the JPA, including Harvest, the sculpture outside Pinnacle Bank Arena.
For years the city used the old Centennial Mall — where once-striking fountains were dry and deteriorating — as the poster child for the maintenance endowment concept.
“They were beautiful when they were constructed in the 1960s but we never had any funds for repair and replacement. And there was no funding strategy to take care of it,” Johnson said.
The newly renovated Centennial Mall included a $1.5 million endowment to help preserve its beauty.
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Endowments have several safeguards to make sure future elected officials can’t divert them for other uses.
Many of the endowments are restricted to capital replacement, though a few pay for programs, such as Party in the Parks programming for Union Plaza, a public garden internship and youth recreation program scholarships.
But the city can’t use the money for other purposes, such as mowing and snow removal, Johnson explained.
And the endowments are separated from city control. They're privately held and managed by the Lincoln Parks Foundation, the Lincoln Community Foundation and First Nebraska Trust. The city cannot dip into them for other uses.
Parks Foundation and city staff were concerned initially about how donors might react to giving money for an endowment, Johnson said.
“But an awful lot of donors understand there is a benefit to putting funds in place for the long term. And we don’t shy away from that anymore,” he said.
There are some additional incentives for endowment gifts. The naming guidelines allow for a facility to be named for someone if the family provides the endowment funding, Johnson said.
The 40-year-old Bicentennial Cascade Retired Teachers Fountain, at 27th Street and Capitol Parkway, is another example of the need for endowments.
The mechanical system is in a below-ground pit, where it is always wet, and the cast-iron piping is corroding, getting thinner and thinner, Johnson said.
“We turn it on very, very gently,” he said. "There will be a point where one of the pipes will fail and the city won’t be able to operate it."
The fountain, originally white architectural concrete, is now brown with rust from the pipes, he said.
The department and the parks foundation are considering a campaign to raise money to renovate the fountain. And any campaign would include an endowment, said Maggie Stuckey, foundation executive director.
"It is about stewardship," Johnson said. "If a community is going to invest in beautiful places, there needs to be a funding strategy to make sure it stays beautiful and open."