The debate over proposed federal legislation that would provide the memorial's private foundation with $20 million in federal money each year, or about one-third of its operating budget, begins this week with hearings in Washington.This has been an issue that has been simmering for the last couple of years, but took on new relevance as the 9/11 memorial opened its doors last month. Operators of the memorial claim that they need federal support to the tune of at least $20 million annually to stay afloat and maintain the memorial. They're also looking to maintain control, which is a rather unique situation given that they don't have quite the transparency that other public-private organizations have.
Proponents say the federal money is needed to ensure the site of a national tragedy does not fall into disrepair decades from now, when private fund raising will get more difficult. The non-profit wants to maintain full control over the operations of the memorial and museum.
But critics, including some 9/11 victims' family members, equate the legislation to a "bailout" of the private non-profit and are calling for the National Park Service to run the memorial if federal money is contributed. They say that would bring more transparency and spending oversight.
"To have a bailout with no strings attached is not responsible and not what the public wants," said Sally Regenhard of the 9/11 Parents & Families of Firefighters and WTC Victims, who lost her firefighter son.
The federal government's national park agency runs several other large memorials — the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbor, which draws nearly 1.5 million visitors a year, and the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pa. It also operates the Statue of Liberty.
Officials at the 9/11 Memorial envision an arrangement more akin to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., a public-private partnership that relies heavily on federal money. The federal government supplies about 56 percent of the Holocaust Museum's $90 million budget. But it also has oversight. The museum is controlled by a panel whose members are appointed by the president, its financial books are open to the public and its staff includes federal employees whose salaries are set by pay scales.
Joe Daniels, the president of the 9/11 Memorial Foundation, acknowledged that the arrangement would be unique.
"I think it's groundbreaking legislation in the sense that it recognizes the federal government has a role here," he said. The difference between the 9/11 Memorial and the Holocaust Museum, he said, is that the museum in Washington, D.C., was created by the federal government, whereas the memorial "exists already."
The 9/11 Memorial is run by the National September 11 Memorial and Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation, a tax-exempt organization. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg heads its board of directors. The actual land the memorial is built on is owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
If it were up to me, I'd want to see the National Parks Service take over the operation. It knows how to deal with such tourist attractions and has the logistical and institutional know-how to avoid duplication of services and transparency.
There are further questions over the compensation packages for key people involved with the memorial, and further concerns over the imposition of admissions charges for the museum when it is expected to open next year. It's yet another reason to see the memorial and museum operated by the National Parks service - to keep the site free of charge as an educational experience.