We try to keep our head down, nose to the grindstone, and to do the best we can, with little or no fuss, if possible. And yet, we often seem to have a target painted on our backs. It’s frustrating.
Especially when a lot of people talk about our business, but don’t know about our business, and don’t ask us about our business. We’re the subject of some harsh media attention this week, and some things are being said that are not correct. Or, maybe certain people just have an agenda.
As a history museum, we take a long view of things. We think about the past, the present, and the future. We consider how we got here, where we are, and where we’re going. So, a little background.
For nearly four decades, until 1998, the museum was a division of the City of Lawton. Our employees were city employees. The original museum building, a gift from the McMahon Foundation, has always belonged to the city, and still does. But in 1998, the City of Lawton reorganized the museum as a “municipal trust.” That’s a legal entity, and it means certain things. Some of them are that we’re no longer a division of the city; we’re governed by a trust authority, which is a volunteer board of directors; and the staff is employed by the trust. Put simply, we’re a stand alone non-profit organization that provides a contractual service to the city.
Still, to our accountants and our auditor, and the IRS, we’re a “quasi-governmental entity.” But the city has no obligation to the trust employees, and we do not participate in the city’s pension or retirement plans, health plan, or anything else. The City of Lawton is, however, the beneficiary of the Museum of the Great Plains Trust Authority, and in the event the trust fails, all our assets revert to the city.
The museum enjoyed a lot of security as a division of the city, and there were mixed (and some unhappy) feelings about being forced to leave the fold, but we didn’t have a choice. The intention of the city, of course, was not to abandon the museum, but to reposition the museum. The city continues to provide the bulk of the museum's funding, in return for the service the museum renders. The trust also maintains, and has greatly improved, an asset of the city. We leverage our position as a separate organization, with 501(c)(3) status, to obtain grants that are not available to purely governmental entities. So that, in a nutshell, is how the museum has operated since 1998.
We’d have to do more research to go all the way back to 1998, but from 2003 to the present, the City of Lawton appropriated $8,404,544 to the Museum of the Great Plains. For the same period, the museum accumulated $7,718,206 in grants and related contributions, a difference of $686,338. Some people would say that’s a loss to the city of $686,338. Another way to see it is that the city invested $8.4 million in the museum and reaped an additional $7.7 million. That’s a pretty good return for 10 years of services provided, and an asset that has increased significantly in value.
Some of our critics say they like the museum, they support the museum, they want the museum to prosper, that the museum is bigger, better, and serves more people than ever before, but that we’re just not worth the drain on the city budget. Yet the section of the budget that includes the museum totals $91,254,448 for 2017-2018. The city has budgeted $550,000 of that for the museum. There are slick people doing arithmetic lately with regard to the museum, but here’s the calculation: $550,000 divided by $91,254,448 equals .0060271, meaning the Museum of the Great Plains accounts for six-tenths of one percent of that portion of the city’s 2017-2018 budget. Here’s another way to say the same thing, that section of the city’s budget is 165 times greater than the $550,000 allocated to the museum. We’re a fraction of the city’s spending. Is the museum not worth 6/10 of 1% of the city’s discretionary expenses?
Here’s another point, the city has reduced the allocation to the museum for three consecutive years. In 2015-2016, the city allocated $595,833; in 2016-2017, $575,000; and this year, $550,000. For the same period, the museum’s operating budget went from $778,600 to $805,576. We lost nearly $46,000 but increased spending by $27,000. So not only did we cover the gap of $46,000, but we added another $27,000, for a total of $73,000. Is it magic? No, it’s increased efficiency and other revenue.
The last time the city funded the museum for less than $550,000, by the way, was in 2008-2009. Interestingly, our budget then was $671,600. So the city provided 82% of our budget in 2008-2009. The city-funded percentage ten years later is 68% of the museum's budget. We’ve decreased our reliance on city funding by 14% over ten years.
During the last fiscal year, 2016-2017, the museum generated an additional 31%, $255,408.11, of its total revenue, to cover operating expenses. More than half the additional revenue, 50%, came from ticket sales; 22% from membership sales; and 22% from store sales. That’s the magic of how the museum gets less money from the city, and yet offers more to visitors.
The other stick we’re currently being beaten with is the former “free Sunday” program for citizens of Lawton. People don’t understand why we discontinued the program. Again, it’s a reality check. We have to make money in order to pay our expenses. We reopened in November 2015 with a vastly improved public space. The response has been that our membership has increased by 350%, and ticket sales have increased by 136%. This additional revenue has allowed us to continue to run a break-even operation. Reintroducing one, two, three, four, or five free days each month will simply decrease our ticketing revenue and discourage memberships, neither of which the museum can afford.
Unfortunately, this has been framed (lately) as a taxpayer question: If the citizens of Lawton pay the taxes that fund the museum, why should the citizens have to pay a fee to enter the museum? Our question is, if the city reduces the amount of taxpayer money allocated to the museum year after year, what’s supposed to fill the gap? Something has to bridge the deficit.
For example, say the city gives the museum $10. Then, say a citizen, a taxpayer, visits the museum for free, when a ticket would normally cost $10. Now that citizen has received $10 in services for his or her $10 in taxes. But now, say the city gives the museum $7.50, and a citizen visits the museum, a service that would normally cost $10. The museum is left with a $2.50 deficit. If the museum cannot operate at a loss, as most businesses can’t for very long, there’s a problem.
That’s our only argument. The city can decide to fund the museum at whatever level it chooses. Elected officials allocate taxpayer money, and those officials answer to the citizens. Both the city administrators and the elected officials have to operate within the constraints of a budget. If they can’t afford to fund the museum at a certain level, that’s just a reality we (the museum) have to accept. But it doesn’t change what it costs to operate the museum. We can cut corners, increase efficiency, do everything we can to control museum expenses, but ultimately we have to generate enough money to break even. If we lose funding in one area, we have to compensate in another.
Either way, the citizen is paying, but it isn’t fair to say the citizen is “paying twice” to visit the museum. Less of your money is being given to the museum to start with, and then you’re making up the difference when you visit. And if the city gave nothing to the museum, the trust would go out of business, and the city would save 6/10 of 1% of its annual discretionary expenditures, and the citizens would be left without a museum. If the city gave every citizen of Lawton (all 97,017) back a portion of this year’s $500,000—which does not include the $50,000 in hotel-motel funds provided by non-residents—each citizen would get $5.15. That “refund” wouldn’t happen, of course, but it’s another way to look at taxpayer investment.
Before a few critics accuse us of using wild, round numbers, or fault us for pretend-this or pretend-that examples, we would ask them to be more precise (or refrain) as well. We post our individual ticket prices on our website, DiscoverMGP.org, along with group rates, and our membership rates. Ten dollars ($10) is the top rate we charge. Someone gave an example where a family of five would pay $10 each, or $50, to enter the museum. The typical family is a range of ages, with other possible discounts, and pays less. The same family can buy a $75 membership—that’s an average of $6.25 per month—and visit all 362 days a year that the museum is open to the public at no additional expense. If you pay anything at all for other types of family entertainment, the museum is a bargain.
If you’re a citizen of Lawton and your support the museum, we encourage you to call your council representative. If you don’t know who that is, there’s a map on the city website. Just visit www.lawtonok.gov/departments/city-council for more information. If you have suggestions for us, please comment here. And thanks for listening to our rant.
From time to time, we'll post info here about what's going-on at the museum.