News Column

Grout girds for 2nd levy vote

July 14, 2014

By Pat Kinney, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa

July 14--WATERLOO -- The Grout Museum District is tightening its belt in the wake of the defeat of a special museum tax levy in last fall's city election.

District officials want to show the public they're serious about pinching pennies and running the district's various facilities on as tight a fiscal leash as possible -- because they're contemplating coming back for another levy vote in 2015.

District officials listed the levy failure's impacts, and "steps we're taking as we contemplate the possibility of doing it again in 2015," Grout district executive director Billie Bailey said.

The Grout board has decided to:

--Reduce operating hours of the Rensselaer Russell House to 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays through the end of August. The house had been open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday from June 1 to Aug. 31. Volunteers will staff the house.

It had regular afternoon hours in the spring and fall and will now only be open by appointment.

--Reduce the staff by the equivalent of four full-time positions. Two part-time employees in the collections area of the museum have been laid off. The other jobs have been reduced through attrition.

--No raises will be given for the fiscal year beginning July 1 unless revenue goals are met. The staff did receive raises for this past fiscal year.

--Two Waterloo City Council members, Ron Welper and Pat Morrissey, now serve on the 20-member privately operated Grout board of directors. Morrissey also served on the museum board's budget committee.

--"We are pursuing very actively other revenue streams," Bailey said. "We're talking about memberships, donations, grants, rentals."

More staff attention will be devoted to marketing, development and planned giving, including bequests.

"We are at point where it is self-defeating" to reduce staff further, Bailey said. The district has 17 full-time employees and nine part-time workers after the reductions.

A core of volunteers "provide some great assistance for the staff, but you need that reliable, consistent staff in order to deliver the product people come to expect," she said.

The Grout also derives revenue from its staff's outreach work with science demonstrations and other activities at libraries, schools and summer reading programs around the state and in surrounding states.

"I think that we're trying to run a very tight ship. We always have, but we're buckling down and staying on top of things," Bailey said. "We are looking at other revenue streams that allow us to minimize the amount we have to rely on the endowment."

That's the fund initially set up by founder Henry Grout's estate to establish the museum decades ago; additional bequests have been added since. That endowment is about $1.6 million to $1.7 million now, and the Grout district runs on a budget of about $1.3 million.

"We've drastically reduced the amount we have to rely on from the endowment," Bailey said. It was about $300,000 a year. "We've got it down to under $200,000 a year," she said.

Ultimately, the district would like to use investment income only, and not principal, or not touch the account at all and let it build up.

The museum also is working with the city to look for "public-private partnerships" to oversee levy funds if voters did approve a museum levy to provide accountability to the city and the citizens.

"We also have a very good working relationship with the Waterloo Schools," Bailey said, and the group is working with the district on developing an education plan to enhance the museum-school program with Waterloo and Cedar Falls public and private schools.

That program is supported by donations and is a major part of the museum's services to the public.

"We've done pretty well getting donations for it," Grout board chair Judy Burfeind said.

"It's one of the programs that I think personally makes one of the biggest impacts on our city," said attorney John Wood, chairman of Citizens for the Grout, the group that promoted the 2013 levy campaign and would do so again in 2015.

The Grout district also works with schools on science, technology, engineering and mathematics programming. Museum district staff take activities to elementary schools and put on middle-school science fairs at Grout facilities, helping students with projects advance to various levels of competition.

The Grout estimates it served about 129,000 people over the past year, including outreach programs.

The Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum adjacent to the Grout has had an exhibit on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and will be preparing a 50th anniversary exhibit on the Vietnam War with the help of a veterans committee.

It also continues to video record "oral histories" of veterans sharing their recollections.

2015 vote?

"We're doing our homework right now" on a second levy vote, Bailey said. The question can't be brought back to voters until the 2015 Waterloo municipal election. The 2013 measure was defeated by a margin of 54 to 46 percent -- less than 650 votes out of some 9,000 cast.

Under state code, only Waterloo residents vote on it and it takes a simple majority of 50 percent plus one vote to pass. A petition drive for a new levy vote would probably start next spring.

Iowa law allows for a property tax levy of up to 27 cents per $1,000 of taxable property valuation for the operation of cultural and scientific facilities. About 800 petition signature are required for the City Council to place the measure on the ballot.

"I think we're happy with the effort everyone made" on the unsuccessful 2013 levy vote, Wood said. "We lost, but not by much in the big scheme of things. For the first time out of the gate, I think we really made an impact and, if nothing else, raised a lot of awareness. So it's kind of hard to find fault. I would say we've realized the importance of neighborhood canvassing and the grassroots effort that has to be out there, and out there early to make it a success the next time."

There was "very little negative reaction to what we were trying to do," Wood said. "I think that's a credit to the citizens. They realize how valuable and important the Grout is to this town and the surrounding areas."

"We're entrusted with the artifacts here. It takes money to keep those and do the programming," Burfeind said. "We can be good stewards with money, as we are with items. There's a trust there, the public trust. We're not here for personal gain, that's for sure. We're here to see a great institution get better."

They also indicated a willingness to partner with other groups in support of the levy, including the African-American Historical and Cultural Museum, if they so choose.


(c)2014 Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Waterloo, Iowa)

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Source: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (IA)

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