This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Commissioners of the Zoo-Museum District voted Monday for the maximum tax rates for the five institutions that get public support, including the Missouri History Museum, but they also talked about changes needed in the district to make sure tax subsidies remain sufficient in the future.
Charles Valier, one of the history museum’s persistent critics in the past, voted in favor of the maximum tax rate of 3.99 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation, which would raise $10 million for the museum next year. With his vote, the rate won approval 6-2, with commissioners Gloria Wessels and Jerry Glick voting no.
Tax rates for the other four institutions were passed unanimously, with no discussion. The rates for the Zoo and the Art Museum will be 8 cents, while the Science Center and the Botanical Garden will have the same 3.99-cent rate as the history museum. Monday was the last day the district could set rates for the coming year.
The newly approved rates are all at or bumping up against the maximums approved by voters, and with property values in St. Louis and St. Louis County dropping, members of the commission heard concerns about problems with support in the future.
Valier, who as a legislator was instrumental in passing the law that created the district more than 40 years ago, said he wanted to start a discussion on three possible changes that could help ease the problem:
- Charge admission to institutions that are now free, for those people who are not residents of the district and not paying the tax that supports them.
- Ask voters to increase the tax-rate ceilings that now exist.
- Seek legislative approval to expand the district beyond St. Louis and St. Louis County to surrounding areas like St. Charles, Franklin and Jefferson counties.
Of those options, he told the Beacon, the last one is preferable. He said it is time that people who live outside the district and take advantage of the institutions pay their fair share.
“We have high attendance from all those areas,” he said. “At some point, the citizens of those communities have to realize they have a responsibility. I don’t think the physical location of the institutions is as central as whether they are accessible to everyone.”
Valier said other metropolitan areas, such as Denver and Detroit, have realized that such institutions are regional and deserve regional support.
The idea of charging admission for visitors to the Zoo, the Art Museum, the Science Center and the History Museum who do not pay the district property tax has come up before but made little headway. In 2010, a bill in the Missouri legislature approving an admission fee won passage in the Senate but stalled in the House.
At that time, Ben Uchitelle, who is chairman of the ZMD board now and was a member then, urged the board to back the proposal, but it was opposed by officials in charge of the Zoo and the Art Museum.
Reduced property values
The issue of dwindling public support came up during discussion of the tax rates for the individual institutions. Patrick Dougherty, executive director for the ZMD, noted that because of the Hancock Amendment, rates may vary depending on the assessed valuation of property, but the amendment sets limits on how much the tax rate can earn.
With a drop of $1 billion in the value of real property and personal property in St. Louis and St. Louis County last year, down to $22 billion, rates had to rise to bring in the same amount of revenue to the institutions – about $10 million for the history museum, science center and garden and $20 million for the zoo and art museum.
But the tax-rate ceiling for voters is 8 cents for the two larger institutions and 4 cents for the smaller ones, so the yield from the property tax is likely to remain flat or fall in the future.
Valier noted that as their operating expenses go up, the institutions and the district are going to have to look at alternative sources of income.
“I think this should be a significant warning for the cultural institutions,” Valier said.
Explaining his vote to approve the full $10 million for the history museum, Valier noted that it has become more transparent, has rescinded its earlier $1 million commitment for the Loop Trolley project and has agreed to shrink the amount that unbudgeted items can be bought without board approval to $10,000 from $300,000.
Those moves, he said, along with more cooperation between museum trustees and commissioners from the museum subdistrict – part of an agreement brokered last year by former U.S. Sen. John Danforth – show real progress on the museum’s part, Valier said.
He also noted the departure of museum president Robert Archibald, whose salary and payout for unused vacation time had prompted much of the opposition to the museum’s operations.
“We’ve gotten reforms,” he said during a break the meeting. “We haven’t gotten all of what I wanted, and we haven’t gotten all of what I think will occur. But the time comes when you have to stop beating a dead horse.
“I want to encourage the changes, not hinder them.”
At first, Valier indicated that he was going to abstain in the vote for the museum’s tax rate, but then he changed his mind and voted for it.
Wessels, who had sought a reduction in the museum’s tax subsidy to $8.5 million, said that without Archibald’s salary and other expenses, the museum’s budget should be smaller, so it should be able to get along with less money.
Plus, she said, the district should not automatically approve the maximum tax rate for institutions whose financial management has been questionable.
Under those circumstances, she said after the vote, “To still give them $10 million is crazy.”
The vote for the full tax rate came after a representative from the office of Mayor Francis Slay and a letter from County Executive Charlie Dooley urged approval. Jim Buford, former head of the Urban League and a current member of the committee seeking a new history museum president, also urged the commissioners to vote for the full tax rate.
He said the museum has “suffered irreparable damage as a result of the past months,” and without the full tax support, it may have lose staff, cut exhibits and have a hard time finding a new president.
“I think we need to stabilize the institution,” Buford said.