A storm is gathering in Dallas over farm land bequeathed to the city by the late surgeon and philanthropist William Worthington Samuell. The good doctor died in 1937, leaving the city assets of about $1.2 million at the time, plus 900 acres of real estate, which included the 340-acre Samuell Farm.
The only stipulation Dr. Samuell seems to have attached to the gift in his crudely written will was that the property was “not to be sold.” So when the cash-strapped city announced plans to sell the property earlier this month, protest ensued.
Even the Texas attorney general got into the act, threatening to take the city of Dallas to court if it attempts to sell, without a judge's approval. "Dr. Samuell's will created a charitable trust,” the attorney general argued, “and did not simply give Samuell property to the city of Dallas for use as city officials see fit."
It is a case of honoring donor intent. And with the budget crunch on, D-Town’s fidelity to the intentions of one of its most generous citizens is wavering.
Whether or not the city of Dallas will live up to its legal and moral responsibilities as trustee of Dr. Samuell’s gift is a question that will be settled over time. With the state’s attorney general holding the city’s feet to the fire, the liquidation sale is on hold (the Park Board has deferred the issue until August).
Yet there is a sense that the Samuell farm case in Dallas is but the first trickle in what may become a gusher of donor intent controversies involving fiscally-challenged governments and gifts bequeathed to them by generations of citizens.
We have already seen how the Arizona state legislature recently voted in special session to redirect a $250,000 bequest from a private citizen to help cut the state's $140 million deficit. The gift, given by a Danish immigrant who "fell in love with Arizona," was intended to support the state's parks and was given to the Arizona State Parks Board upon her death.
The donor's intention in making the gift was of little concern to the legislature in reallocating the money, as the bequest had not been slated for a specific purpose within the parks department. Nevertheless the donor “would have never given the money," a close friend said, "if she had known the state was going to take it away from the parks board."
In Colorado, state representative Ken Lambert made a similar play for a $125,000 gift to the state's Department of Natural Resources to help erase a $1.3 billion budget deficit, arguing that "in a budget emergency, it [the state] should use every dollar it can find to balance the budget."
Will cities, counties, and states look to vacate their responsibility for gifts made – and gifts graciously accepted – to the public trust as the nation’s economy struggles? If governments prove to be lousy trustees during down times, they will jeopardize the generosity of their citizens during good times.