The park gets its money from a Confederate Widows’ Pension Fund which, as late as 2004, was still paying out pension funds.
“It’s providential,” said Bill Rambo, director of the park. “I wish other historic sites had such a stable source of funding.”
A 102-acre park and museum in Marbury, in the northeast corner of Autauga County, Confederate Memorial Park has five full-time employees and one part-timer and an estimated 30,000 visitors annually. The park received $460,000 in state funding last year, its cut of a one-mill property tax that was set up approximately 100 years ago to keep Confederate veterans from spending their golden years in poverty.
So far, the park has avoided the budget hardship faced by other state-funded historic sites.
Earlier this month, Gov. Robert Bentley unveiled his proposed budget for 2012, a budget designed to reflect post-recession belt-tightening. Bentley completely eliminated state funding for about 200 agencies and positions; and many historic sites were on the chopping block. Bentley’s proposed budget completely eliminates state funding for the Aliceville POW Museum, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Helen Keller’s birthplace, Jesse Owens Park, the Nat King Cole Project and several other history-related institutions.
But funding for the Confederate Memorial Park is enshrined in law, and there seems to be no political will to touch it.
‘Plenty’ of money
According to documents from the Legislative Fiscal Office, many decades ago the Legislature set aside one mill of property tax — one dollar out of every thousand dollars in a property’s value — for a pension fund for Confederate soldiers and widows. One percent of that mill was set aside for a Confederate Soldiers’ Home for aging and indigent Civil War veterans.
As veterans’ numbers dwindled, the pension fund shrank. The Legislature changed the law to allow most of the one-mill tax to go to the Department of Human Resources and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Confederate Soldiers’ Home hasn’t had a resident since 1939 — but the funding set-aside still exists. Confederate Memorial Park now operates on the site of the old Soldiers’ Home.
Rambo said the state funding provides “plenty” of money for the park’s day-to-day operations — so much that the park is able to set money aside for future projects.
“We just built a museum, and paid for it with money we had put away in CDs [certificates of deposit],” he said. He said the park’s next project is to build an authentic Civil War barracks.
Rumors of cuts — but no cuts
Rambo worries that the park is a budget plum ripe for the picking. But even the rumor of a cut for the park is enough to rile the state’s Civil War buffs.
“It’s foolish to propose closing sites like that, when the Legislature is promoting (Confederate-related) tourism,” said Leonard Wilson, a past division commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
In a letter to The Anniston Star, Wilson said that “some of the governor’s advisors” are proposing that the park be closed. In a telephone conversation Wednesday, Wilson couldn’t specify where he’d heard about the proposal.
Bentley spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis said the governor has no plan to close the park.
“The Governor has no plans of shutting down the Confederate Memorial Park,” Ardis wrote in an email. “In order to reduce or stop funding to the park, a bill would have to be introduced in the Legislature. Their funding, by law, is from the Confederate Widow’s Pension Fund and isn’t one of the line items that has been zeroed out in the General Fund.”
The Anniston Star could find no bill under consideration in the Legislature that would change the park’s funding.
But Rambo is still convinced the park dodged a budget bullet.
“We heard a while back that the governor planned to cut the Confederate soldiers’ fund,” he said. “If you eliminate that, you eliminate funding for the park.”
He said legislators spoke out and put a stop to the plan.
“I’m not going to breathe a sigh of relief until the (legislative) session is over,” he said.
Oldest Confederate widow
The park’s parent fund has been the subject of controversy in the past, in part because it paid out pensions more than a century after the Civil War.
According to Associated Press reports, the last living Confederate widow, Alberta Martin, was drawing a Confederate pension when she died in 2004.
Martin was in her 20s in when she married an elderly Civil War veteran. In the 1920s, according to press reports, Martin’s husband drew a $50-per-month pension. In 1996, after being widowed a second time, Martin applied for and got a $150-per-month pension with a $205-per-month supplement, according to Associated Press reports from the time.
Rambo said that people at other tourist sites are “jealous” of the Confederate park’s funding, and they have a right to be. He said tourist sites bring the state more money than they cost, and he doesn’t support cuts to other tourist venues.
Marbury is a small town, not far from an Interstate highway, and Rambo said the town needs something to attract travelers to it. He said the park’s museum has about 10,000 visitors per year, at $5 per ticket. He said the park itself plays host to about 30,000, who aren’t charged admission.
“We get visitors from Canada, from Florida,” he said. “We get rave reviews.”
Even so, Rambo said he doesn’t think the park would be funded as well without the legislative set-aside, due to the nature of its content.
“If it wasn’t for the way we’re funded, this story wouldn’t be told,” he said. “The kids in school are only getting one side (of the Civil War) — the winner’s side.”
Star assistant metro editor: Tim Lockette at 256-235-3560