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By Miriam Raftery

Photo:  Water Conservation Garden at Cuyamaca College

Updated January 8, 2024 with comments from Dr. Michael Hager regarding Jennifer Pillsbury's resignation.

December 20, 2023 (Rancho San Diego)--The Water Conservation Garden will run out of money as early as mid-December, the nonprofit organization Friends of The Water Conservation Garden (Friends) stated at an October 24 meeting of the Water Conservation Garden Joint Powers Authority (JPA),  the consortium of public utility and governmental entities that oversees the Friends.

The Friends group had not been able to put together a financial status report for a substantial period of time. When the bookkeeping problems were finally resolved in September, they realized they were going to run out of money in December, Friends informed the JPA. JPA members voiced frustration and peppered representatives of Friends and the Garden with pointed questions over the financial situation,  including controversy over loans secured by Friends that JPA members said they were not informed about.

Subsequently, following a series of closed session meetings by the Friends, the Garden’s  Executive Director Jennifer Pillsbury announced her resignation in a December 15 letter to the Friends board, without giving a reason,  Her last day will be January 2, 2024, according to her letter.

"Jennifer Pillsbury's resignation is in no way a result of  unhappy board members," Dr.  Michael "Mick"Hager,  president of the Friends' board of directors,  later told ECM.  Her resignation has enabled the Garden to keep most of its educational programs, he added,  since Pillsbury's salary was a significant budget item. He credited Pillsbury with leading efforts to find funds for forensic accounting needed, and offered assurances that the results of that forensic accounting found no indication of any wrongdoing, merely unconventional bookkeeping practices in past years under multiple different directors "doing the best they could" with limited funds for the nonprofit and challenges posed by  COVID.

The JPA held an emergency meeting November 20 to discuss the situation and asked the Friends for a number of financial documents to be provided before the meeting. They were not delivered until the meeting, however, giving the JPA no time to read before discussion.

The Friends’ Board of Directors was represented by Hager and Pillsbury, whom Friends  employed to oversee staff and the day-to-day running of the Garden. Hager and Pillsbury said the Garden might extend operations until February because on October 31, a  $200,000 loan was received from Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District.

The documents revealed three loans totaling $950,000 with loan payments of $200,000 coming due in May and September, which the Friends had taken out to fund monthly salaries. JPA members said they had not been informed about the existence of the loans. ECM reviewed the “Report of the Executive Director” presented at each meeting with the JPA in 2023, and there was no mention of loans in them.

Hager indicated Friends had been counting on a federal COVID-19 employee retention loan program through the Small Business Admnistration that has since been frozen due to numerous fraudulent applications received.He also mentioned a state grant for which funding has been delayed.

JPA member Kathleen Hedberg grilled Pillsbury and Hager on why they took out hefty loans. Pillsbury said the half million loan in 2021 was “strictly to get us operating” because when the Garden reopened after the COVID-19 pandemic, “we didn’t have much business coming in,” though memberships have increased, one bright spot in an otherwise dismal outlook.

During the time the Garden was borrowing to meet salaries, a number of new staff positions had also been hired. Hager and Pillsbury presented a “Survive and Thrive” plan with a “bare bones” option that included not only cutting the majority of staff, but also educational programs - the primary mission for which the Garden was created.

The JPA, which created and partially funds the Garden, has the authority to declare the Friends in breach of the contract under which it operates the Garden and can either remove them or give them time to remediate, one possibility available to them at the coming JPA meeting on January 23 at 2:30 p.m. (location to be determined).

Garden staff have since been actively pursuing a number of emergency grant sources, and have an emergency fundraising effort online which currently shows $12,532 towards a $200,000 goal. While it might act as a Band-Aid to get the Garden through the immediate crisis, it is not a sustainable solution to the systemic imbalance between income and expenses The Garden has been operating with in recent years.

JPA Chair Mark Robak voiced shock at finances being in “disarray” and later concluded, “It’s a crisis, even with $200,000 from Cuyamaca College. There will be sacrifices, but in the end we need to be sure we have a viable garden.”

The Friends Board of Directors held a closed-door meeting on December 7. On December 18, the Friends held another closed session meeting.

In July the Friends’ Board of Directors received a letter signed by 25 “Concerned Garden Volunteers.” Among the issues they raised were:

  • Slow progress on projects, including four years to restructure the accounting system.
  • No formal annual report since 2018, which “discourages funding, patrons, and members.“
  • “… The executive Director does not spend much time in The Garden….“
  • A shift away from horticulture related classes towards health and wellness, which they felt might jeopardize future funding.
  • Volunteer skills “are underutilized, and instead relegated to mundane tasks,” including a restructuring that removed the volunteer component of membership recruitment

The letter concluded “While we intend to offer our continuing support…with our skills, there are those among us who have reduced their annual financial contributions, or are considering reducing legacy contributions.“

*The Garden was created via Joint Powers Agreement between various regional water agencies to educate people about water conservation. It is located on the campus of the Grossmont Cuyamaca Community College District. Its members are Helix Water District, Otay Water District, Sweetwater Authority, City of San Diego, San Diego County Water Authority, and the Grossmont Cuyamaca Community College District.


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