Reader: Historical society millage request wrong direction for history, culture and arts.

April 17, 2017

Reader: Historical society millage request wrong direction for history, culture and arts.

Letter to the Editor by David Petersen, Amber Township.

The issue of public funding for the activities of the Mason County Historical Society have come up once again. The Society had a millage passed in the early days of the development of White Pine Village that was not renewed.

Since that time the village has survived on donations, memberships, and gate proceeds.

Now with the needs for a research facility, and funding to complete the Maritime Museum MCHS has made a proposal for .29 mills in order to raise $2.5 to $3 million for these projects.

Those people who know me are familiar with my passion for local history and desire to see our history preserved and shared. Many would probably be surprised to find out that I do not support passing a millage to solely benefit the Mason County Historical Society.

Before I talk about why I don’t support that let me say that I would support a millage that provided funding for projects of all of our local historical and arts organizations. I do believe that the Arts Center, Barns and Byways, Western Michigan Old Engine Club, Lighthouse Association, Sandcastle and Sports Museum to name a few all deserve a chance to receive funding for their projects as well.

If we are serious about supporting the idea of an arts, cultural and historical destination then I believe we need to look at the larger picture.  Funding and collaboration amongst all of the stake holders working together to provide programs and share in marketing is important to the success of developing a coordinated approach to preserving and supporting our local history, culture and arts.

If we passed a millage that was inclusive of all local organizations and provided a means for outlying areas to be included maybe the Foundation could be the gatekeeper for funds raised, and a Mason County Council of the Arts Culture and History developed to review grant requests and make recommendations for funding.

Any organization receiving public funds should in my humble opinion be transparent. If we are going to fund them should we not be able to see their meeting minutes, tax returns, budgets, bylaws etc?

These organizations are by definition private non profits and they are not required to share much with the public. The Federal tax return the 990 is required by law to be shared and the public allowed to have a copy of those forms, but not much else. I requested a copy of the 2016 990 filing from MCHS and a copy of the bylaws and I was refused those documents. I’d like to see a more detailed budget and copies of board minutes, if we are being asked to provide public funding should we ask for less?

The good programs routinely make as much information available as possible, post their minutes and place documents online in order to be transparent and open with the public, their members and donors.

Now one concern is that a non profit can if it wishes, or if circumstance and lack of funding dictate close the doors and liquidate their holdings. The law requires that funds left over after paying the bills be distributed to other non profits.

That means that our history, and our artifacts can go on the auction block. The grounds, the buildings, everything can go away. One question is how do we protect our investment? Donations, public funds and millage have built White Pine Village, if they receive a millage, another 2.5 to 3 million dollars of public monies goes into it. Do the people of Mason County own the project? The answer is no, they do not, the private non profit owns it. Shouldn’t we know without any doubt that MCHS is fiscally sound?

In looking over the fiscal report included in the millage request The Historical Society and the Village collectively have a negative balance in 2016 of $128,000.00 and only by adding income from a yet to be opened Maritime Museum does the report indicate a positive balance. How exactly do the operating expenses of HWPV and MCHS get covered? How does passing a millage address what appears to be an annual deficit?

The millage will provide for a $900,000.00 welcome and research center but the research room only generates a couple thousand dollars annually. Membership is currently at 123 members, (it really should be a thousand). Visitors to HWPV were 8,559 in 2015 and 8,615 in 2016. Attendance appears to be stagnant, and not increasing dramatically as stated in the proposal.

The MCHS millage proposal also talks abut urgent capital expenditure needs, and crumbling infrastructure and yet MCHS offers to provide $50,000 to cover the cost of the millage election and has retained an architectural firm to provide building and site design for the new additions.

What happens if the millage fails?

I do not believe that the millage will solve the challenges faced by MCHS and the Port of Ludington Museum which seems to have fallen short on fundraising. Last year there was a failed initiative to require board members to donate a $1,000 to retain a seat on the MCHS board, and during that month 3 members resigned.

The MCHS has accomplished many good things in the past 40 years, but there are issues of transparency, and viability along with many questions that need to be asked.

What kinds of oversight will there be? 

Will the County be able to appoint a commissioner to the MCHS board?

Will the County receive detailed financial records?

What protections do the people have after the funds are turned over to MCHS?

How can an organization that states it is unable to maintain their buildings properly going to pay the County up to $50,000.00 to cover the cost of the millage election if they lose? If they win does that mean that $50,000 of the millage taxes will be used to pay the County for the election?

A lot of questions remain unanswered and I would urge the Commissioners to study the issue closely, take their time, and ask the hard questions while exploring other alternatives.

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