The Presidio Trust's mystery millions

Why is a national park sitting on $105 million for projects that are too secret to disclose?

The Presidio Trust just published its annual report for 2006. This slick-looking document is distributed to the national park's George W. Bush–appointed board of directors — and to the purported shareholders of this quasi corporation, the American taxpayers.

If you just read the executive director's message, scan the pretty pictures, and glance at the numbers to make sure they're on the proper side of zero, then this unique endeavor to privatize a national park looks peachy. Revenue is coming in, operating expenses are being covered, projects are getting completed. The goal is to be self-sufficient by 2013 without any federal subsidy; the trust thinks it will meet that goal. Donald Green, a former economist for the Office of Management and Budget and SRI International and now a Sierra Club Presidio committee member, told us he agrees.

"The financial picture, from their point of view and mine, is good," Green said. "They're already financially viable."

But when the Guardian took a look at the balance sheets, we had a few troubling questions. The investments line in the assets category jumped out at us: it turns out the Presidio Trust has more than $105 million in the bank. Well, not quite in the bank — that money's actually invested in federal securities. But it's still a huge pile of cash for a public agency to sit on. The National Park Foundation, another goverment agency chartered by Congress, that collects funding from philanthropists and private corporations to support national parks, had total assets of $81 million for 2005, $58 million of which is invested in marketable securites.

What is all that money for, where did it come from, and why isn't it being used? And if the trust has so much in the bank already, why did its leaders ask Congress for a $20 million loan for 2008 — on top of $50 million the federal government has already loaned the trust?

The answers — or rather, the lack of answers — demonstrate exactly what's wrong with Presidio Trust operations.

According to a detail of the assets line item, the trust, which spends about $50 million a year running the park, has $103,031,000 in excess money invested in nonmarketable Treasury securities. About a third of that doesn't mature until 2029. Another two-thirds — $69,787,000 — has the slightly lower interest rate of 5.02 percent and will drop $2 million of interest into the kitty for 2006, leaving a balance of $105 million.

At the same time the trust is investing in the Treasury, it's also making interest payments. In 1999 the park borrowed $49,978,000 to jump-start renovations and get some money flowing. So far, the trust has only been paying off the interest on the loan, at 6.12 percent — which translates to a hair less than $3 million per year.

Pause now to consider those numbers: making $2 million in interest, spending $3 million on interest payments. Huh.

According to Dana Polk, the trust's senior adviser for government and media relations, the $105 million is a combination of money granted by the Department of Defense for environmental remediation, unspent money from the 1999 loan, and money received from various sources and obligated toward various projects.

When we asked for more specifics on how much money came from where and how it's going to be spent, Polk said there was an itemized detail of that budget line but added, "That's not a public document."

In other words, the taxpayers don't get to know what's happening with their money.

"Often they don't want to even explain their own numbers," Green said, "which is pretty pathetic for a governmental organization."

What we do know is that when the Army turned over the base to the trust, the Department of Defense cut a $99 million check to pay for the toxic spillage left in 15 areas throughout the park.