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History Museum critics want lower tax rate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2013 - Critics of the Missouri History Museum plan to try again on Monday to cut the amount of tax money it receives, but supporters say that changes adopted over the past year show that any problems with the museum’s operations are history.

When commissioners for the Zoo-Museum District set preliminary tax rates in April for the five institutions funded by public money, the rate for the history museum was approved at its maximum, but only on a vote of 5-3. At a rate of 3.91 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation, the history museum would continue to receive its $10 million tax subsidy. Its annual budget is $14 million.

The tax rates for the other institutions – the Zoo, the Art Museum, the Science Center and the Missouri Botanical Garden – were also approved at the maximum, on unanimous votes.

The three dissenting voters – Gloria Wessels, Charles Valier and Jerry Glick – said they wanted the history museum to get only $8.5 million in tax funds because there should be consequences for what they considered the museum’s poor oversight of funds in the past.

As examples, they have repeatedly cited the salary and payment for unused vacation time for former museum president Robert Archibald (who resigned last December after signing a contract to head the institution for another year) and the purchase of land on Delmar Boulevard for use as a community center that was never developed.

Wessels told the Beacon this week that she does not think the response to such events should be to let the museum continue to receive the same amount of tax money, despite changes in governance that have gone into effect over the past year.

“What does an institution have to do in order not to get the maximum tax rate?” she asked. “What is our board’s purpose? We have a responsibility to taxpayers.

“If we do nothing, I think it sends a message to the other institutions not to worry, because no matter what you do, the ZMD always sets the highest rate. What are we there for? I just think giving them $10 million again this year would be a travesty for the district.”

But Ben Uchitelle, who heads the ZMD board and has been a staunch supporter of the museum, pointed to what he called “very significant” changes in governance that took effect in January – more authority for commissioners of the history museum subdistrict, tighter control over spending and compensation, more transparency in operations and others.

Those reforms, he said, show the museum has changed and deserves the public’s trust and support.

“I think what the Missouri History Museum has been doing over the past year, working jointly with the commissioners and the trustees, is a first-rate job,” he told the Beacon.

“It’s come a long way from its difficult times and has strong support from taxpayers.”

John Roberts, who heads the museum’s board of trustees, echoed Uchitelle’s evaluation of the changes in governance. He said that cutting public funds for the museum would not send much of a message at all.

“If you take money away, who does it hurt?” he said. “The only people I can think of are the employees and the community. Where would they make the cuts?

“The issues that caused their concern are behind us,” he said, referring to the institution’s critics “We can continue to spend time and effort and money on them, or we can move forward. We want to move forward.”

But Wessels said that a reduction in the museum’s tax rate for the coming year would still be the most prudent use of public dollars.

“Just because they have changed and are letting commissioners be more involved doesn’t mean we should throw money at them,” she said. “Let’s give them less money now and see how the program works. If it works, we can give them the higher rate next year. It’s only one year.”

Changes and investigations

In the wake of Archibald’s resignation and the issues that prompted it, several agencies have looked at the museum’s operations.

An appraisal of the Delmar property that was bought in 2006 for $875,000 valued the land at $260,000 at the time it was purchased. A separate investigation led by former U.S. Attorney Edward Dowd Jr. into allegations of improper handling of documents at the museum, found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Yet to be completed are an investigation by the circuit attorney’s office and hearings by the Board of Aldermen. No dates for a final report by the circuit attorney or for resumption of hearings by the aldermen have been set.

Valier, one of the museum’s persistent critics, told the Beacon he has not yet decided what tax rate he will vote for when the ZMD board meets on Monday – the last day it can set the rate before the new fiscal year. He and Wessels have said they had hoped to get results from the circuit attorney's office before the vote was taken.

Valier acknowledged that positive steps have been taken in the museum’s operations, and he said that the issues that prompted his opposition have been scrutinized. But he is not totally satisfied that all of the changes will result in permanent improvements.

“I would like to see the commission ultimately be the governing body,” Valier said, “because they are accountable, where the trustees aren’t. My biggest concern about the trustees is that there are so many of them, and that’s not a good governing body.

“The real question down the line is going to be what direction is the history museum going to take; and until they get a new director, I don’t think that’s going to become clear.”

He and Wessels each said that they don’t think the museum is taking proper advantage of the history St. Louis and the rest of the state has to offer, and they don’t think the history it does show is being presented in the right way.

“There’s too much reliance on traveling road shows,” Valier said. “There is some local history that could be emphasized. Obviously Lewis and Clark and Lindbergh are two that stand out. But more importantly, the archive function of the history museum was degraded during Archibald’s tenure. As research facility, it not a very good one right now.”

Wessels added:

“They spend a lot of money to store their collection. But they don’t show it to us. Their main exhibits on St. Louis have been there for years. What are they really doing? They bring in traveling exhibits.”

In response, the museum noted Friday that next year, when St. Louis will be celebrating its 250th birthday, a year-long exhibit titled "250 in 250" will open in February, focusing heavily on local history. Of the 11 exhibits on next year's schedule, the museum said seven had been created in house.

At a budget committee meeting this week, commissioners and trustees heard reports on a recent traveling football exhibit, Gridiron Glory, that drew only half of the crowd that was expected -- 18,252 – with the resulting loss of revenue and membership proceeds.

Bob Cox, interim president of the museum, said the committee that monitors exhibitions is planning on taking a more active role in helping decide what traveling shows should be brought to St. Louis.

Cox became interim president in June, serving in a part-time position designed to last until a permanent successor to Archibald is on board. A search committee to find a new president was hired this summer, at a cost of $100,000, with a goal to have someone in place by the end of the year.

Donna Wilkinson, head of that committee, said the search is on schedule. More than 30 people have applied for the job, she said, and the committee will meet next week with the search firm to review the applications and determine who should be getting a closer look.

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.