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Keeping Carter’s home neat costs U.S. a tidy sum

Upkeep part of bequest deal

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The tennis court at former President Jimmy Carter's private home is swept twice a day, his pool is cleaned daily and his grass cut, his flower beds weeded and his windows washed on a regular basis — all at taxpayers' expense.

Under an arrangement with the National Park Service, taxpayers are responsible for the exterior of Mr. Carter's home in Plains, Ga. — to the tune of $67,841 last year alone. In exchange, the government obtains the right to add the home to the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site when he and his wife pass away.

Other presidents have had similar life estate agreements calling for their properties to be turned over after their deaths, but to have taxpayers footing the bill for upkeep and maintenance of the Carters' property appears to be unique, and it's drawing fire at a time of tight federal budgets.

"The sad part is, 67 grand is simply a rounding error. Most people around here wouldn't think it's worth the effort, but it's symbolic," said Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican and chairman of the subcommittee that oversees parks.

Mr. Carter's spokeswoman, Deanna Congileo, said the former president is open to some changes in the arrangement but that it's up to the Park Service to make those decisions.

"President Carter would be glad to reduce the frequency of routine maintenance at the discretion of the Park Service," Ms. Congileo said.

Park Service officials say they are taking such close care of Mr. Carter's home because that is what the agreement requires, and to ensure that the property will be in good shape when it is eventually added to the Carter National Historic Site, which now covers the president's boyhood farm and the school he and wife Rosalynn attended.

"My obligation is to meet the requirements of that agreement, and to fulfill those obligations to the best that we possibly can," said Gary Ingram, superintendent of the site.

The list of daily maintenance, financed with taxpayer dollars, includes clearing the driveway, walkway and tennis court, picking up trash along the road that runs by the home, clearing tree branches that have fallen along the estate's walking trails and cleaning the pool.

On a weekly basis, the Park Service removes cobwebs, mows grass around the estate's pond and weeds the flower beds, and on a less frequent basis clears leaves from the pool's pump house and washes the windows of the home.

As an ex-president, Mr. Carter, who served one term before losing re-election to Ronald Reagan in 1980, is already entitled to hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds annually for a pension and office expenses. The General Services Administration said Mr. Carter last year was allotted $518,000, including $199,000 for his pension and $102,000 for office rental, plus other costs for postage and staff.

His allowance is the lowest of any former president: $312,000 less than that of George H.W. Bush, $570,000 less than what Bill Clinton receives and $788,000 less than George W. Bush's allotment. Presidents are given more staffing money in their first 30 months out of office.

Mr. Carter also receives lifetime protection from the U.S. Secret Service, though that cost is not made public and is not included in the $518,000 figure.

Mr. Carter isn't the only ex-president to have signed a life estate agreement with the Park Service, but his is apparently the only one leaving the government to foot the bill for basic upkeep.

Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1967 agreement on his working farm in Gettysburg, Pa., exempted him from paying property taxes, but taxpayers did not pay for maintenance to the home, according to his presidential library.

Eisenhower and his wife continued to run their 230-acre farm and were responsible for all maintenance and upkeep. After he died, his wife, Mamie, was granted a special-use permit to live at the house and use the surrounding 14 acres, and she remained responsible for insurance, repairs and maintenance costs.

Lyndon B. Johnson also signed a life estate agreement with the Park Service, but neither his presidential library nor the Park Service at the Johnson National Historic Park has a copy of the document, so it's unclear what agreement they reached.

Mr. Bishop, the congressman from Utah, said at the very least the government should come up with a policy for the future, since other presidents' homes likely will be acquired in the coming years.

David Barna, a spokesman for the National Park Service, said lessons were learned from the handling of the Eisenhower estate - in particular, that deferring maintenance until after the Park Service takes control of the property "does not always bode well for the service in those cases whereby the public will be introduced to such an improved property."

He said the Park Service took a pre-emptive approach to maintenance of the Carter estate, "commensurate with ensuring this historic site will be ready for the public's viewing upon the expiration of the Carters' life tenancy."

"When Congress authorizes the home of a former president or other nationally prominent figure as a historic site to be viewed by the public, it is expected the buildings and grounds associated with such places will be maintained to the highest standard," Mr. Barna said.

A bill establishing the Carter National Historic Site was passed by Congress and signed by President Reagan on Dec. 23, 1987, and from the beginning, ballooning costs appear to have been a worry. While the bill was still in committee, lawmakers added language making sure the government didn't spend too much to refurbish Plains High School.

Thirteen former presidents have properties preserved as national historic sites.

Mr. Clinton's birthplace home in Hope, Ark., was incorporated into the National Park Service in December. A 2002 law authorized the government to buy the Reagan boyhood home, but the Park Service's offer was rejected by the Reagan Boyhood Home Preservation Foundation.

The budget for the overall Carter National Historic Site has grown 32 percent over five years, from $1.29 million in 2006 to a request of $1.704 million in 2010.

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