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Fired park director plans to pay money back, attorney says

SHARE Fired park director plans to pay money back, attorney says

SALT LAKE CITY — The former executive director of This Is the Place Heritage Park says he plans to pay back what he took.

Matt Dahl was fired Tuesday after his attorney said he admitted stealing $240,000 from the park's budget. Attorney Greg Skordas said Dahl wants to repay the money as quickly as possible.

"We anticipate a significant payment quite soon, within 15 to 30 days," Skordas said. "And the majority of any lost funds within three to six months."

Dahl was discharged as executive director of This Is the Place Heritage Park this week following an internal investigation. Skodas wouldn't comment on what happened to the money.

Dahl is in the unusual position of having admitted guilt to a crime before being charged.

A Salt Lake police investigation has barely started, and any possible criminal charges are "at least a couple weeks away," according to a detective familiar with the case.

The news of the stolen money is not good for the park's image. After years of financial challenges, board chairman Ellis Ivory said the park has just recently started bouncing back a bit.

Ivory said gate receipts grew from $50,000 five years ago to $275,000 last year.

"Things are really looking great at the park, and we can absorb this bump in the road and go forward," Ivory said Tuesday.

Still, Ivory admits concern over private donors who have been generous in funding the park's $3.5 million budget.

Taxpayer money may be a little more secure. The state also supplements the park's annual budget.

According to the state budget office, the Legislature appropriates $800,000 a year to the park and has for years, at various dollar amounts.

The park also gets a portion of Salt Lake County's Zoo Arts and Parks fund. The amount of ZAP funding varies from year to year, according to Victoria Bourns, Salt Lake County ZAP fund administrator. Last year the amount for the park was $40,000.

In 2008, the state chipped in an additional $350,000 to assist the park through an especially rough year.

Senate Minority leader Pat Jones, who is also on the This Is the Place Heritage Park board, said the park is regarded as a state treasure. Jones said there is never much debate among legislators about whether or not to appropriate ongoing money to the park.

Still, Jones is aware of the ongoing challenges of keeping the living museum running.

"I hope this does not add to that," Jones said. "I think this is one person's choices that were inappropriate."

Jones is among those who credits Ivory for bringing the park to the level it is today.

"They're very careful about what they invest in, they've been very conservative," Jones said. "But I think progressive enough to think about what to do to bring people here, like advertising on bus billboards. And I think Ellis deserves the credit. I don't think Matt (Dahl) does."

e-mail: rpiatt@desnews.com