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Aldermanic hearing, ZMD meeting focus on History Museum

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 3, 2013 - As the Board of Aldermen prepares to resume its hearing into problems and policies at the Missouri History Museum, commissioners of the Zoo-Museum District who have been critical of how the museum spends its money say its tax subsidy should be cut.

Alderman Joe Roddy, who heads the aldermanic parks committee, chaired its first session on the museum in January. Wednesday morning, city appointees to the museum’s subdistrict commission are expected to testify about how the issues that have dogged the museum for the past several months can be resolved.

“I’m going to try to get this out of the newspaper and get all of these institutions out from under this cloud that has been hovering over them,” Roddy told the Beacon, “so they can move forward.”

Whether they move forward with as much tax support as they have been receiving is a question whose answer may begin at a meeting set for Thursday when the eight ZMD commissioners set preliminary tax rates for the five institutions that get public support – the St. Louis Art Museum, the St. Louis Zoo, the St. Louis Science Center and the Missouri Botanical Garden as well as the History Museum.

Gloria Wessels and Charles Valier, two commissioners who have been the most vocal in their criticism of spending by the History Museum and what they consider a lack of proper oversight, say they would like to see the museum’s tax rate cut. After preliminary rates are discussed this week, final rates will be set this fall.

Valier noted that when museum president Robert Archibald resigned late last year, after signing a contract that reduced his compensation, the museum was able to give him a $566,000 payout for unused vacation days and a six-month consulting contract for $270,000.

He also pointed to the museum’s purchase of tract of land on Delmar in 2006 for a community center that was never built; an audit later showed that the museum had not gotten an appraisal for the land and that it paid $875,000 for the property that was later judged to have been worth $260,000.

Of the museum’s $14 million annual budget, $10 million comes from tax money.

“It’s clear that we have been giving them more than they’ve spent,” Valier said.

“That’s not a bad thing. But by the same token, the land deal, which started all of this, where they clearly overpaid for the land and didn’t use a normal protocol in getting an appraisal, opened up the can of worms.”

Valier said he was leaning toward recommending a tax rate that would reduce the museum’s public subsidy by $1 million or $1.5 million.

“That would not force them to cut operations or fire people,” he said. “It would prevent them from every giving away money for unused vacation or for a retirement plan for their director or from paying their director more than any other museum director in the country except the Smithsonian.”

Valier and Wessels both said that a big part of the problem with spending at the museum lies with its governance. It is run by a board of trustees with dozens of members, as well as by the museum subdistrict commissioners, with the full ZMD board serving as yet another layer.

Valier said he had gone through eight year of minutes of the board of trustees and found that all votes were unanimous on plans put forward by Archibald, with no debate.

“That’s not a healthy sign,” he said. “If there is no discussion and no debate within a governing body, that is a telltale warning.”

Responding to trustees’ insistence that the money being paid to Archibald was not from the taxpayers but was private money, Valier said that distinction is not really valid.

“It’s all in the same bank account,” he said. “We give them money to run the museum. The museum generates money in sales from the gift shop, from grants. They’re calling that private money, but that money is there only because taxpayers are paying for the essential operations of the History Museum.

“They are just allocating money to whatever fund they are going to draw the money from, but it’s all in the same bank account. To say that it’s private money is really a deception for the public.”

Archibald vs. Pujols

Valier says the trustees’ willingness to go along with Archibald’s plans shows that changes need to be made. He made a comparison with another long-time leading St. Louisan who ultimately decided to leave town.

“It’s kind of like with Albert Pujols,” he said. “The Cardinals could either negotiate against themselves and tie themselves up forever with Pujols, or they could unlock that money and use it to get other talent.”

ZMD tax rates

* 3.82 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation for History Museum, Botanical Garden and Science Center

* 7.69 cents for the Zoo and Art Museum.

In each case, it's the highest allowed by law, when the maximum rate is rolled back because of Hancock considerations.

Wessels, who is treasurer of the ZMD board and head of the audit committee, said she would like to see changes in the new operating agreement between the trustees and the subdistrict commissioners. It was negotiated last year by former U.S. Sen. John Danforth and took effect Jan. 1.

Specifically, she and Valier would like to see the trustees agree to operate under the rules of the Missouri Sunshine Law, even though they are not technically a governmental body, and would like to see the threshold for spending without board approval lowered to $10,000 from the $300,000 in the agreement.

Like Valier, she wants the museum’s tax rate to be cut as well, though she would not be specific about a figure.

“I want the museum to survive,” Wessels said. “But I really think we need to send them a message so that between now and September, they hopefully change some of the flaws in this agreement.

“I’d like to give them nothing, but I know that’s not right.”

Officials with the board of trustees have said they are willing to make the changes involving the Sunshine Law and the threshold for spending. But they note that they want to give the new agreement a full year to work before exercising the option in it to review and amend specific provisions. They also say that because committees are meeting more frequently, problems with spending that occurred in the past are not like to happen again.

A letter to ZMD commissioner sent this week by John Roberts, head of the museum’s board of trustees, and Romondous Stover, head of the subdistrict commission, asks that the tax rate for the museum be set at the current level, which is the maximum allowed by law.

The History Museum is authorized to have a maximum tax rate of 4 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation, but its current rate is below that, at 3.82 cents, because of a rollback prompted by the Hancock amendment. Ben Uchitelle, who heads the ZMD board, thinks it should remain there.

“I recognize that the museum has been through a difficult six months,” he told the Beacon. “But I think it is addressing its difficulties.

“It is a superb institution. Dr. Archibald is no longer there. The History Museum has entered into a new agreement between the trustees and the commissioners that seems to be working very well. I want to signal to the museum’s supporters, employees and taxpayers that things are under control.”

The aldermanic hearing

The relative roles of the trustees and the commissioners is an area that Roddy wants to explore as well. He says that Archibald’s long tenure, and the people that he helped recruit for the museum’s board, may have led to a certain degree of oversight that wasn’t as sharp as it could or should have been.

“The vast majority of people who volunteer at these organizations are well intended and doing this stuff as community service,” he said. “We want to try to get away from blaming people and discuss governance issues and what the obstacles are. I think a lot of this is structural. All of the authority is so divided that it creates confusion, and I don’t think there has been clear direction or expectations.

“As a result, there has been over the years a kind of drift of purpose and mission and responsibilities, and because of that, we have ended up in a situation where we have various groups thinking that the other groups are exceeding their authority. Through 25 years of a kind of neglect, we’ve have all these people kind of feuding about these things.”

He said that lack of oversight was particularly present in the land deal, which he called a case of “sloppy procedures.”

Roddy echoed Valier’s concern about the use of public money versus private money in operating the institutions under the ZMD.

“There is a different level of responsibility when you are dealing with public money than when you are dealing with private money,” he said. “I think that has been forgotten and ignored.

“You need a higher level of scrutiny and a higher level of responsibility. If people are not willing to accept that, I appreciate their interest and their willingness to volunteer, but they probably should not be involved in this.”

Besides the hearing by the Board of Aldermen, the History Museum is also the subject of an investigation by the city circuit attorney. A spokeswoman for that office said the process may be concluded in the next few weeks. A grand jury also is reportedly looking into the situation, but no information has been made available on that.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.