WASHINGTON, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- Buried in the huge appropriations bill that the returning U.S. Senate must discuss this week is a little-noticed provision to privatize the Oklahoma City National Memorial -- the park and museum on the site of the 1995 truck bombing that killed 168 people.
The management of the memorial says that making it an affiliate of the National Park Service under the ownership of a private foundation, rather than the fully fledged national park it is today, is the only way to ensure its financial future.
But critics of the proposal, who include survivors of the bombing and relatives of the victims, feel "unhappy and betrayed" that a national monument is being placed in the hands of a private foundation.
"As part of the Park Service, we have to abide by 177 government regulations," the memorial's Executive Director Kari Watkins told United Press International Monday. "Many of them are ridiculous in an urban environment -- we don't need a wildfire or wildlife plan, but we have to have one ... The costs this unnecessary burden imposes on us are outrageous."
"If we want the memorial to be financially sustainable, this is what we have to do."
The provision, sponsored by Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., was adopted as part of the huge omnibus spending package agreed in closed-door conference by Republican legislators and passed by the House of Representatives Dec. 8. Now it is before the Senate, which returns Tuesday.
"I don't like the idea of the future of this memorial being in the hands of a private foundation," said John Cole, whose two godchildren Elijah and Aaron Coverdale, aged 2 and 5 years old, died when the blast tore through the Alfred P. Murrah building on April 19, 1995.
"This could open the door to all kinds of changes that are not conducive to the future of the memorial," like admission charges to the park, he said. The museum already charges a $7 fee to visitors.
Currently, the day-to-day operations of the memorial are overseen by a presidentially appointed board of trustees. The endowment that funds it is managed by the foundation that raised more than $20 million for its establishment.
The legislation would dissolve the trust, and transfer ownership of the memorial and the land to the foundation, which would then assume management.
Cole -- a member of the board of the foundation -- said that the 350-member task force that spent nine months researching and consulting the form of the memorial, determined from the beginning that it should be a national park to ensure its preservation for coming generations.
But Watkins insists that removing it from the park service is the only way to ensure the memorial's sustainability.
"Without an annual appropriation," she said, "it is impossible to meet the costs the park service imposes ... Since we made this arrangement in 1997, the costs have tripled; we just can't cope with that."
The costs of staffing the memorial with Park Service officers was nearly $600,000 last year, said Watkins, more than three times the $187,000 it was in 1997. The costs are met by the foundation, out of interest from the endowment, admission fees and other income.
One of the issues critics raise is the question of standards. "As a part of the National Park Service, there are certain minimum standards in terms of the visitor experience and in terms of accountability," which would be threatened by the proposed change, said Cole.
But Watkins said that the standards "are as high in the museum (which the Park Service has no role in managing) as they are at any memorial in the country." Moreover, she adds, the memorial management is keen "to carry on working with the Park Service ... We want them as a partner, we just can't afford to keep paying."
Watkins said, "If they are as committed as they say they are to the future of the memorial, they will be there under this new arrangement. They will find the money."
No one from the National Park Service returned calls Monday, which was a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.
Cole admitted there are financial issues. "We know that we'll need more money," he said. "Less people are coming to see the memorial."
But this, in his view, just makes it all the more important to maintain the financial transparency and accountability that goes along with being a part of the Park Service.
"If we can't show we've done a good job and (spent the money) responsibly, it'll be harder to ask for more," he said.
Cole said the new arrangements will be "less accountable and less representative," and subject to less stringent disclosure requirements. But Watkins insists that the foundation can "account for every penny we've spent ... we have nothing to hide."
Cole said many of the survivors and relatives he has talked to "feel unhappy and betrayed ... This proposal does not represent the will of the families survivors or rescue workers -- it is the work of five or six individuals."
He said that initially, he supported a proposal to explore affiliate status. "But then, the next thing I knew, the legislation was before Congress." He said there was no consultation with the foundation board.
Watkins acknowledged that ideally she would have liked to have had a public meeting, but said there was no opportunity. "This proposal was changing from day to day. We looked at a lot of different options ... In the end it was what the congressional delegation recommended. We went along with that," she said.
She said that the 6,000 survivors, victims' relatives and rescue workers were notified of the proposed changes by mail and that most of the responses she has had so far have been positive.