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ZMD sets maximum preliminary tax rate for History Museum

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 4, 2013 - Rejecting characterizations they are simply a rubber stamp, a majority of the Zoo-Museum District board approved a motion Thursday to keep the preliminary tax rate of the Missouri History Museum at its maximum level.

The vote was 5-3, with the museum’s persistent critics –Charles Valier, Gloria Wessels and Jerry Glick – voting no. They had previously moved that the museum’s rate be cut so it would receive $1.5 million less than its current $10 million annual tax subsidy, but that motion was defeated.

The vote to approve the maximum rate for the museum came after an hour of debate, some of it contentious. Then, in short order, the board voted unanimously for preliminary approval of the maximum rate for the other four institutions in the district – 7.86 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation for the St. Louis Zoo and the St. Louis Art Museum and 3.91 cents for the History Museum, St. Louis Science Center and Missouri Botanical Garden. Final tax rates will be decided this fall.

The ZMD must decide on the rate for each institution each year; even at the same rate, the exact amount may vary because of limits imposed by the Hancock amendment.

The debate over the History Museum rate followed the same lines as it has in recent months, with the three critics complaining about issues such as compensation for Robert Archibald, the museum’s president who resigned late last year, and the terms of a deal in 2006 to purchase property on Delmar without an appraisal.

Those in favor of keeping the current rate said that changes in the operating agreement between the museum’s trustees and the commissioners of its ZMD subdistrict have fixed the governance problems that led to the issues, and the new agreement should be given a chance to work.

“We have to move forward here and let people know exactly what rate we are looking at,” said commissioner Robert Lowery, who joined the early part of the meeting by phone and said he favored the maximum rates for all institutions.

But Valier, Wessels and Glick said that approving the maximum would be a disservice to the public and would send a message that actions by the History Museum carry no financial consequences.

“We’re now at a crossroads,” Valier said, adding that he wants to show taxpayers that those in charge of the museum are being held accountable.

“We have no solutions to the problems,” he said. ”The only solution that has been offered is the amended operating agreement. This board has been operating for 40 years, and other than the first year, when it met and cut the Science Center’s rate by half, there has never been any action by the ZMD to address the tax rates vis-a-vis what is happening at each of the institutions and what value the taxpayers are getting out of each of those institutions.

“We’re perceived as simply a rubber stamp board, and the facts support that.”

Valier said the reduction in taxpayer money that the lower tax rate he proposed would bring in – 3.26 cents – would roughly equal the money he said the museum has paid to Archibald and transferred to its endowment fund.

Valier also said that the History Museum has not kept up with the latest trends that similar institutions are taking advantage of, comparing it to the Lincoln museum in Springfield, Ill., and the World War II museum in New Orleans.

“The History Museum is behind the times in terms of interactive exhibits,” he said. “It doesn’t have a theme to draw visitors to it. It has simply been an exhibitor of traveling road shows. That is not a world-class institution.”

Wessels complained that the museum is run like a “private club” and that the ZMD board should send a message with a reduced tax rate that it is applying a tourniquet and not simply a Band-Aid to the problems.

“I think the taxpayers will be really disappointed if we give them the whole tax rate,” she said.

But those in favor of the maximum said the issues raised by Valier, Wessels and Glick have been discussed over and over for months, and it is time to let the new operating agreement work.

“This is information that everybody knows,” said commissioner Thelma Cook, adding:  “We have a difference of opinion about how we should move forward.”

Commissioner Thomas Campbell said that approving less than the maximum would hurt the museum and the other institutions and would mean that the board would “become part of the problem.”

“The time has come to end the public flogging,” he added.

Ben Uchitelle, chairman of the ZMD board, called the History Museum a treasure that has been increasing in stature for 25 years, and he said that the commissioners have helped it and the other institutions supported by tax dollars improve.

“Let’s look at the institutions,” he said. “Have they thrived? Are they world-class or national-class? Yes…. We support them and ‘rubber stamp’ them because they are doing a good job.

“We are doing our job. I think we are doing our job well.”

At several points in the meeting, Uchitelle had to gavel for silence as commissioners criticized each other; at one point, Robert’s Rules of Order were invoked.

Sitting on opposite ends of the room, Wessels and Campbell had a heated exchange over a letter that went out on ZMD stationery over the signatures of Wessels, Valier and Glick, without the approval of the other commissioners.

Wessels and Campbell clashed over the use of terms such as “mean-spirited,” which Campbell used to characterize the tone of the letter, and “cowed,” a word the letter used to describe how the majority of the ZMD board had been acting.

Reacting to Campbell’s assertion that ZMD stationery should not have been used or the letter, Wessels pounded on the table and said: “That makes me so angry. I should be able to get stationery as the audit committee chair…. Don’t tell me I can’t.”

Describing the tone of the letter sent by the three museum critics, Campbell said: “That is mean-spirited. That is unprofessional. That is what creates discontent and apprehension among members of the public.”

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.