The Washington Post

Montgomery hopes to revive parks foundation to offset budget cuts

To save money last year, the Montgomery County Department of Parks considered getting rid of portable toilets and began charging fees for using dog parks.

Now, it has hired an executive director for the county parks foundation to raise money, hoping to lessen the impact of continued budget cuts by breathing life into a group that has not functioned for two years.

“Recent and anticipated future budget cuts have underscored the need to grow alternative sources of funding,” Mary R. Bradford, county parks director, said in a statement.

The department’s operating budget in fiscal 2011 was about $69 million, $10 million less than in the previous year.

As a result, the agency implemented a 10-day furlough, closed 11 activity buildings, scaled back landscaping and eliminated its seasonal workforce, officials said.

“This is a park system that has never suffered the way it is suffering now,” said David Tobin, a parks department manager who serves as a liaison with the foundation. “And it has never really reached out beyond the taxpayer funding. . . . We can’t maintain this nationally recognized parks system with county funding alone.”

The department has 400 parks on more than 34,000 acres.

Tobin said that although the impact on services may not be felt for a few years, it is crucial to implement a fund-raising plan now.

“It takes years to build the relationships with potential donors,” he said. “That investment was never made.”

Officials said the hiring of Debbie Heibein Rankin, former executive director of the Montgomery County Historical Society, is part of an effort to restructure the foundation. It was created in 1992 to raise money for parks but was deemed ineffective by members of the Planning Board. It has been essentially defunct since January 2009. Rankin is tasked with rebuilding the foundation and its fundraising, membership and sponsorship programs.

“As far as a fundraising organization, it had not been effective,” said Royce Hanson, president of the foundation and former chairman of the Planning Board. “That was supposed to be its main function.”

Hanson said the Planning Board reviewed the foundation’s finances and found “little money in the bank.”

There was no wrongdoing; the foundation was just not adhering to its core mission, Hanson said.

All but two members of the board of trustees resigned, and the Planning Board took the helm on an interim basis, Hanson said.

In 2009, the Planning Board ordered an audit, which found that the group had $189,089 in assets and $35,264 in cash.

Tobin said the foundation had “embarked on a course of actually running park projects on behalf of individual donors, and that was a strategy destined for failure.”

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which oversees the parks agency, and the Montgomery Parks Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding last year that spells out how it will operate in the future.

According to the agreement, the foundation will collaborate with the commission to create a database of prospective donors. The foundation will also establish a Friends of Montgomery County Parks group. It expects to raise $2.5 million in major gifts and $120,000 from 3,000 “friends” in fiscal 2012, the document says.

The agreement also says the foundation will provide annual audits to the Planning Board and cannot spend more than 12 percent of its proceeds on administrative costs.

Rankin, who will begin work Jan. 24, will initially be a contract employee for the parks agency. Eventually, the agency expects she will become a full-time employee of the foundation.

Rankin will be joined by two new board members — Edwin S. Grosvenor and Joseph Isaacs — as the county continues to tackle a $300 million shortfall that is likely to affect the parks system.

“Fundraising is always very challenging, but it’s also about having a clear message and connecting to people about what they want in their communities,” Rankin said. “I believe people want places to take their dogs and places for their children to play.”

Ovetta Wiggins covers Maryland state politics in Annapolis.


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