At least one member of the public board that oversees the five cultural institutions in the Zoo-Museum District in St. Louis says it's time to think about charging some visitors to enter the St. Louis Zoo, Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis Science Center, St. Louis Art Museum and the Missouri History Museum.
Commissioner Charles Valier announced his change of heart during Monday's meeting, where commissioners set the district's property tax rate for the upcoming year. The revenue from the tax provides a good chunk of the operating budgets for the five museums. Here are the approximate allocations:
- St. Louis Art Museum - $20 million ($.08 per $100 of assessed value)
- Missouri Botanical Garden - $10 million ($.0399 per $100 of assessed value)
- Missouri History Museum - $10 million ($.0399 per $100 of assessed value)
- St. Louis Science Center - $10 million ($.0399 per $100 of assessed value)
- St. Louis Zoo - $20 million ($.08 per $100 of assessed value)
Property values in St. Louis city and county have dropped by $2 billion since September 2009, with $1 billion of that drop coming since December 2012. The commissioners have been able to boost the tax rate to keep the support for the five museums constant, but the rates approved on Monday are the highest allowed by state law.
Valier says he doesn't see property rates rising any time soon. And that's why he's changed his mind about keeping the museums completely free.
"I believe that we should give St. Charles, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison [and] St. Clair counties the opportunity to participate" in the district, Valier said. "But I think if they don't want to participate, then I think we have to actively consider whether admissions charges are going to have to be made. These institutions cannot grow and expand if their revenue base is stagnant."
Expanding the district in Missouri would require action both by the General Assembly and voters in the three counties. Expanding it to Illinois might require an act of Congress.
Valier says the ZMD commissioners could also ask voters to increase the maximum property tax rate for the district, but said that should be a last resort.
Missouri History Museum gets full funding amount
In voting for the rates today, the ZMD commissioners put behind them, at least for now, a months-long battle over governance and spending at the History Museum by giving all five member institutions their full allotment of public funds. That's about $10 million for the History Museum.
At a preliminary rate meeting in April, three members of the commission tried to reduce that allocation by $1.5 million. The effort failed, and its leaders did not attempt it today. But not all of them were happy.
Commissioner Gloria Wessels, a frequent History Museum critic, said although the museum has made progress, she had to vote no.
"I just feel like they've wasted a lot of money," she said. "And to do nothing and say well, you’ve changed so it’s okay, I think we have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers who are funding this taxing district."
St. Louis circuit attorney Jennifer Joyce and the St. Louis Board of Aldermen are still investigating the History Museum. Wessels said she could have supported the full $10 million allocation if those investigations were complete and had found no wrongdoing.
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