Money chase 

Arts groups engaging in pork-barrel politics

Normally demure and refined leaders of the arts community are behaving like hard-boiled politicos in Flathead County, scrambling for advantage in what has degenerated into an unseemly squabble over money.

The Flathead County Commission unwittingly started the quarreling by placing a resolution on the June 8 primary election ballot, giving voters the opportunity to authorize a property tax increase for the arts. Since then, the three commissioners have been inundated with complaints from the very arts groups that they were trying to help.

The problem is that the resolution would give half the $240,000 in new money to Kalispell’s Museum at Central School and the other half to the county museum board to hand out in the form of grants to other arts organizations. The other organizations—which run the gamut from high-toned museums to community playhouses—all want juicier slices of the pork.

Among the money-hungry hoards of arts groups: Whitefish’s Stumptown Art Museum, the Bigfork Community Players, the Bigfork Playhouse, the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts, Conrad Mansion, Stumptown Historical Museum, the Whitefish Theater Company, Glacier Symphony and Chorale and Kalispell’s Hockaday Museum of Art.

The Museum at Central School—operated by the Northwest Montana Historical Society in a stately, 110-year-old building in Kalispell’s downtown historic district—would use its share of the money for maintenance and a curator’s salary. The museum now depends on donations, and its board is vigorously defending the tax resolution as it’s currently written.

“The groups proposing to rescind the current resolution go way beyond the scope of what the museums want or need and would end up creating a fund that would be deluged by requests from any tax-exempt group and others that met the interpretation of the law,” the museum’s board wrote the county commissioners. “The money could possibly become so diluted as to be of little benefit to anyone.”

Be that as it may, the other arts groups contend that it’s unfair to give the Museum at Central School more than an equal share of the money. They want all the cash dumped into a single pot to be divvied up among them.

“Our organization is recognized as one of the leading cultural and artistic assets of Flathead County,” wrote Jim Strainer, president of the board of the Glacier Symphony and Chorale. “We work hard to provide outreach concerts and educational events throughout the county and the region. If local public tax dollars are going to be utilized to support the arts in Flathead County, we believe it would be more appropriate to devise a way in which all cultural and arts organizations have potential access to these funds.”

Rita Fitzsimmons, the president of the board of Kalispell’s Conrad Mansion Museum, made another point in her own letter to the county commission: “All of our county-wide museums and established arts centers are part of what makes the Flathead the culturally vibrant center of this region, as well as a destination point for visitors. These museums deserve to be considered, along with the Central School Museum, if the mill levy is to be put on the ballot.”

The county commission has urged arts groups to agree on a compromise resolution. But it was clear at a meeting last week that they aren’t working together well at the moment.

“We have not heard from a single soul. There’s been no effort on their part to try to work out a solution,” said a frustrated Bernie Olson, a Central School Museum board member.

The commissioners ended the meeting without saying when they might decide what to do. The groups are worried that all their public wrangling might put off voters and cause them to reject the resolution, no matter what form it takes on the ballot.

“The resolution as it was first proposed is dead meat,” said the county museum board’s Ed Gilliland. “We simply can’t have one side bickering with the other. The only way this will pass is if we’re all working together. It needs to be clear that we’re all behind this.” Even if, by some miracle, the arts groups do unite, the resolution faces rough-sledding. It would raise property taxes by 1.62 mill. For a $175,000 house, that’s an additional $5.65 annually.

That may not sound like much, but also on the ballot are proposals for property tax hikes to run buses for the elderly and disabled and to buy ambulance equipment and train emergency personnel. Added to that are possible higher taxes for a new school, a new fire hall, a new courthouse, and higher fees to fund ever-expanding water and sewer systems.

“The taxpayers are being hit from all sides,” said Mark Norley, president of the Hockaday Museum of Art’s board. “Any chance the voters have to say no, the chances are good that they will say no.”

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