Tuesday, June 3, 2003

Museum Center seeks tax levy

By Cliff Peale and Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Cincinnati Museum Center, facing what it calls a "financial crisis," will ask Hamilton County to place a tax levy on the March 2004 ballot.

The 0.2-mill operating levy would provide almost $3.7 million a year for the museum center, at Union Terminal in Queensgate. If approved, the levy would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $5.89 a year.

The request comes at a critical time for the center - the most-popular museum in Ohio with more than 1 million visitors a year - which is hosting the high-profile "Baseball as America" and "Vatican" exhibits later this year.

Doug McDonald, president of the nonprofit center, which includes the Children's Museum, the Museum of Natural History and Science, the Omnimax theater and the Cincinnati History Museum, said more cost cutting would mean slashed exhibits and fewer public services. The center ran a million-dollar deficit last fiscal year and is likely to do so this year, although it has cut more than 40 jobs since 1999.

"To go further would basically mean to shut down parts of the institution," McDonald said Monday.

McDonald's letter requesting the levy was delivered to county officials late Monday. Commissioner Phil Heimlich called the museum center "one of the great attractions in the region" but said he was hesitant to support any tax increase.

"Special property-tax levies have been going up in this county at three times the rate of inflation, and at some time you have to say, 'Enough is enough,' " Heimlich said.

The request must go through a financial audit, an advisory committee and finally a vote of the Hamilton County commissioners before it can get onto the ballot.

Even those often critical of new taxes said the museum center needed some help. Chris Finney, vice chairman of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, said he thought savings in other tax levies could offset the cost of this one.

"As much as I'm opposed to new taxes, this is one where I think we need to figure out a way to get them some funding," Finney said.

McDonald said the museum center supported the new process for getting tax levies onto the ballot.

Museum officials have been preparing their campaign for public funding for several years. Since McDonald took over in 1999, when the museum faced a $2.3 million deficit, the museum has cut about 43 jobs. It now has about 310 employees. In 2001, it cut 11 percent from the operating budget of about $14 million, and the museum broke even for the first time in its history.

But that was before the 2001 riots in Over-the-Rhine, which hurt tourist attractions throughout the city. When added to a slumping economy and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the result was devastating for cultural institutions.

The center's budget has been under constant stress. Simply maintaining the building costs more than $2.5 million a year, and the museum has identified $2 million a year in additional maintenance projects.

In the fiscal year ended June 30, 2002, the museum center lost more than $1 million, and it probably will lose at least that amount in the current year, McDonald said.

Hamilton County taxpayers already are paying 0.15 mills, or $4.59 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home, to retire the bonds from the center's reconstruction in the late 1980s. Those bonds are scheduled to be paid off in 2009.

If the levy passes, the museum center would use about $2 million a year for repairs on the building and the rest to support its operating programs, McDonald said.

E-mail cpeale@enquirer.com and candrews@enquirer.com

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