As the nation prepared to observe the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a debate over balancing the need to honor the memory of Sept. 11 with the enormous costs of running a memorial and museum at ground zero has been reawakened, with officials facing questions over the project’s expected $60-million-a-year operating budget.
The number comes on top of the $700 million construction cost of the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum. A report Sunday by the Associated Press noted that $12 million a year would be spent on security, more than the entire operating budgets of Gettysburg National Military Park and the monument that includes the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who leads the nonprofit foundation’s board, on Monday called the Sept. 11 memorial’s operating cost a necessity for security and other costs unique to hosting millions of visitors a year on the reborn site of two terror attacks, in 1993 and 2001.
Some congressional Democrats underscored their efforts to help get federal money to cover some of the operating cost, while a Republican senator from Oklahoma reiterated his opposition.
Even some victims’ family members are divided over whether the annual price tag represents the price of paying tribute to the nearly 3,000 lives lost or the cost of unnecessary grandeur.
The centerpiece of the rebuilt World Trade Center site, the memorial includes both a serene, solemn memorial plaza, where waterfalls fill the fallen towers’ footprints, and a mostly underground museum that is to house such artifacts as the staircase workers used to escape the attacks.
The plaza opened last year and has drawn 4.5 million visitors so far.
The museum was to have been finished by Tuesday, but progress has stopped amid a construction-costs fight between the memorial foundation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that owns the trade center site. The Port Authority has claimed the Sept. 11 memorial foundation owed it $300 million for infrastructure and revised project costs; the foundation has argued it’s owed money because of project delays.
The parties involved in the dispute said Monday they had reached an agreement that will pave the way for completion of the museum.
Even so, it remains unclear how the foundation will cover the costs of running the museum, once it does open.
So far, the foundation has been able to rely on corporate and individual donations and selling memorabilia. The annual expense was about $27.8 million last year, including four months of operating the memorial plaza, according to recently audited financial statements.
But the expense is projected to jump to $60 million after the museum opens. The foundation plans to spend around $12 million a year on private security; operating the waterfalls costs another $4.5 million to $5 million annually, the foundation says.
Foundation officials haven’t responded to requests for information about other costs at the site.
“Nobody is taking the money and building a hunting lodge for the trustees or having caviar and champagne every night,” Bloomberg said when asked about the operating expenses. “It’s a lot of money, but it costs that.
“Do you want a real budget, or do you want us to lie?”
He said the costs could be covered by donations, by admission tickets to the museum – the price has not been set, but the memorial president has suggested it could be up to $20 – and from federal aid.
A proposal for up to $20 million a year in federal money has, so far, hit roadblocks.
Senate sponsors Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and New York Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer said through their offices Monday that they continued to press for the money.
“This is hallowed ground, and it deserves to be treated like other national monuments,” Schumer said in an emailed statement.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has been blocking the measure. And he’s not relenting, spokesman John Hart said Monday.
“He believes it is wrong to pay for this by borrowing $200 million from future generations and foreign governments when the federal government is rife with waste and duplication,” Hart said.
The Sept. 11 memorial would be more costly to run than some of the other places where the nation remembers its dead – Arlington National Cemetery, which receives 4 million visitors a year, costs $45 million annually, and Gettysburg National Military Park $8.4 million.
But the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has an $81.2 million budget for this year, about $51 million of it expected in federal money and the rest from private donations and investment income. It has averaged about 1.8 million visitors annually over its 19 years.
The memorial to the victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing derives its $3.3 million operating budget entirely from museum revenues, private fundraising and endowment earnings.
“We run ours with a very lean staff because that’s how we can sustain our memorial and museum,” said Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial.
The Sept. 11 museum has “a different philosophy and approach,” Watkins said, noting that she wasn’t critical of it.
Some Sept. 11 victims’ family members are, however.
To Jim Riches, a retired fire chief who lost his firefighter son at the trade center, the memorial and museum’s projected operating expenses reflect an overblown project that he feels is more tourist attraction than tribute.
“We just want a simple memorial. They want to make this the Metropolitan Museum,” he said Monday.
But other victims’ relatives see it as the understandable cost of honoring their loved ones in the ambitious spirit that surrounded the rebuilding in its early days.
“For me, as a family member, yes, it’s a big number, but you know what? It was the worst attack in our country’s history. It reflects well what we as a nation will do, and can do,” said Lee Ielpi, also a retired firefighter whose firefighter son died in the attacks. “And I’m OK with it.”
Ielpi is on the memorial foundation’s board and runs a visitors’ center financed by a separate nonprofit group.