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9-11 memorial: Priceless at any cost? (+video)

The September 11 memorial and museum will require a $60 million-a-year operating budget. Some argue the federal government can't afford such a hefty price tag, while others say the meaning behind the memorial is worth any cost.

By Jennifer PeltzAssociated Press / September 10, 2012

Arborist Jeremy DeSimone, (l.), sprays fertilizer on a swamp white oak at the National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center site in New York in 2011. The foundation that runs the memorial estimates that once the roughly $700 million project is complete, it will cost $60 million a year to operate.

Mark Lennihan/AP/File

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New York

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 on the eve of the attacks' 11th anniversary, as officials faced questions Monday over the project's expected $60 million-a-year operating budget.

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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 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.

At ground zero, several visitors Monday to the memorial plaza were surprised — but not put off — by the $60 million-a-year figure.

"Really?" said Pat Lee, 57, a Walmart manager from Atlanta. But, she said, "I don't think the money is too much. Because it's important to keep alive the memory of what happened."

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 paved 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 after an unrelated news conference. "It's a lot of money, but it costs that. Do you want a real budget, or do you want us to lie?"

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