Collier County delays reimbursement for exhibit designs for new Marco museum
After spending $100,000 on designs for permanent exhibits at the new Marco Island Historical Museum, a nonprofit group is struggling to get its promised reimbursement from Collier County government.
The county set aside the money. However, after the county took over the museum, that clouded the award of a grant to the Marco Island Historical Society. The society paid for the designs earlier this year.
The historical society was the driving force behind the museum's construction on Marco Island, raising the millions needed to get it built on county-owned land.
The problem with the grant arose because the society spent the money on the initial exhibit designs at about the same time that it transferred the museum's ownership to the county.
The grant was awarded from a fund that's strictly for non-county owned museums. There's a separate fund that supports the county's museums. The money for both funds comes from a slice of the county's tourist tax – a 4 percent charge on all hotels and other vacation rentals.
Jack Wert, the county's tourism director, brought up the problem with the grant at a Tourist Development Council meeting Monday. The council advises the County Commission on tourism matters.
"We are coming to you today, with a real dilemma...At this point payment is being held up, pending some kind of resolution as to where the dollars come from," Wert said.
Collier Clerk finance director Crystal Kinzel told council members that the historical society was awarded the grant in 2009, but the contract was extended to allow more time for the design work to be done. When the society submitted the final bills in August of this year, the nonprofit no longer qualified to receive the grant because it no longer owned or operated a museum, she said.
"Obviously it's a timing issue. It's a contractual issue and it's an ordinance issue. And we are going to have to reconcile those so it can get repaid," Kinzel said.
A meeting is planned today to try to resolve the problem. Representatives from the county clerk's office, the county attorney's office and the county's budget office will be involved in the discussions, Kinzel said.
She said it's not an issue of not having the dollars to pay the bills.
"They were not spent. They are there," Kinzel said.
The society, Wert said, hired an outside consultant to assist it with the first permanent exhibit designs. He said the group did everything it was required to do under the contract for the grant.
To resolve the problem, county commissioners may have to change an ordinance or approve a budget amendment, Wert said.
No one from the historical society spoke at the tourism council's meeting.
By phone after the meeting, Ron Jamro, director of Collier County's museums, said the grant was made and it should be paid. He said the society delivered a solid design plan.
"I have the plan in front of me," he said. "That is what we used to price out the first phase of the exhibits and they are under construction as we speak. So this is a rude surprise."
He said the fact that the county now owns the museum is irrelevant. That was planned all along, going back to 2003 when the society struck a deal with county commissioners to raise the money for the project.
"I'm puzzled as to why this is taking everybody by surprise," Jamro said.
Craig Woodward, a past president of the historical society who has been working to reach a compromise with the county, said the group tried to apply for reimbursement earlier, but was told to wait until more of the design work was done.
"We have complied with everything we were supposed to comply with, within the time-frames we were given," he said. "To me it sounds like a technical problem that they've got. It doesn't have anything to do with us."
Once the society gets reimbursed it can put the money toward the construction of more exhibits and tap matching dollars awarded by the city of Marco Island to help build them, Woodward said.
"I hope this will all blow over," he said.
He fears the city's matching dollars could be in jeopardy with the county delaying its payment. Initially, the focus is on building exhibits that tell the city's early history, centered around the Calusa Indians.
Alan Sandlin, the historical society's president, said he sees no reason for his group not to get repaid.
"Obviously, everybody is tight with money," he said. "So everybody is finding a loophole, but there is no loophole here from our perspective."
The Tourist Development Council did not make a recommendation on how the problem might be resolved. Members said they would wait to see the outcome of today's meeting among county staffers.
With the help of the new museum on Marco, the county-owned museums have seen record attendance this year – more than 106,000 visitors, Jamro said.
"You can just get so much mileage out of temporary exhibits," he said. "At some point, you've got to say, 'well this is our history and this is really what we want to tell.'"
Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden.