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Audit wary of Valley project

City controller says the Children's Museum needs a better plan for raising funds.

August 30, 2007|Francisco Vara-Orta | Times Staff Writer

City officials should consider turning down any future funding requests for the Children's Museum of Los Angeles, under construction in the San Fernando Valley, until museum officials come up with a workable financial plan, City Controller Laura Chick said Wednesday.

At a City Hall news conference, Chick released an audit that she said "shows a troubling picture for the museum's future," concluding the museum does not have enough money to finish construction and open.

In 2000, L.A. officials authorized $9.5 million from parks bond measure funds and other taxpayer sources to build a museum to replace the city's original children's museum in the downtown Civic Center. The amount was intended to be seed money to help the museum raise funds to complete the project, the audit said.

But the bulk of the $28.7 million raised to date -- about $19 million -- has come from taxpayers, not private sources, Chick said. Before the city "gives the museum one more taxpayer dollar, the city's leadership must take a look to see if there is a viable fundraising plan and that this is a fiscally sound project," she said.

Museum officials said they need an additional $22 million to complete the $53-million project, under construction near Hansen Dam in Lake View Terrace, by March 2009.

Cecilia Aguilera Glassman, the museum's chief executive officer, said her organization will not ask the city for additional funding but instead is trying to get private donations to complete the project.

"Once the city understands our plans and what is happening currently at the museum, I think they will be more comfortable with our situation," Glassman said. "But I welcome their conversation, because, with the amount of public funds that went into the project, all the parties should feel comfortable with our museum's plans."

Chick said that, although Glassman, who came in as director just six months ago, has led "well-intentioned" efforts to move away from public funding, the audit found the city has failed to closely monitor the project's progress and hold it accountable for its spending.

"City managers in charge of the administration of the program indicated that, while they felt uncomfortable about releasing the funds to the museum, the museum had significant political support that made it harder for them to withhold any funding," the audit reported.

The city's relationship with the project dates to at least 2000, when the city approved a 50-year deal leasing an acre of its parkland annually to the museum for $1 a year. The new museum will replace the Civic Center facility, which closed in 2000 because it had no room for expansion, there was not enough parking and its lease was expiring.

Councilman Richard Alarcon called for the audit in June, while helping the museum secure a city loan of more than $1 million. Since its construction began in October 2005, the museum has been plagued with funding shortfalls and has been forced to delay its opening by two years.

"I'm not at the point where I think this project is a disaster," Alarcon, whose district includes the museum site, said Wednesday. "The audit provides a better light as to where we need to go next."

Alarcon said Glassman raised $1 million in May.

Glassman said she will announce next month a multimillion-dollar private donation, the museum's largest yet, that "will show we're headed in the right direction."

Chick's audit also urges city leaders to ensure that the annual $4.5-million operating costs for the museum will not come from the city's budget. Glassman said the museum will bring in $2.4 million in ticket sales, rentals and membership dues, with the remaining $2.1 million coming from annual fundraising that will feed into an endowment she hopes to build.

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francisco.varaorta@latimes.com

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