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City slashes Long Beach museum funds

September 17, 2009|Mike Boehm

The Long Beach Museum of Art is facing austerity measures after the City Council cut most of its government funding on Tuesday.

The budget passed by the council gives the museum $169,000, down from $569,000 the previous year. The cut will help defray the city's overall budget deficit, but it also was spurred by officials' ire at having to pay off a $3.06-million bond that museum leaders had promised years ago to cover but then failed to when their fund-raising campaign fizzled.

The council was more lenient than Mayor Bob Foster, who had proposed eliminating its funding after the museum decided not to pay the principal on city-backed construction bonds for its 2000 renovation and expansion. Foster has the authority to veto budget line items, but a spokeswoman for the mayor said he considers the $169,000 "a reasonable position."

Ronald Nelson, the museum's executive director, described the $400,000 budget cut as "punitive and rather short-sighted," given that the museum is public property and that the city relies on the nonprofit foundation that runs it for its proper upkeep.

City officials reconsider museum funding each year, but Nelson said he expects the cut to be just the first installment in a multi-year bid by City Hall to recoup the $3 million.

Nelson said he and his staff had planned a $3.2-million budget that assumed city support would be pared back by $250,000 rather than $400,000. That would have given the museum $319,000, which Nelson says is the minimum payment called for under the museum's operating agreement with the city. He hopes the museum can offset some of the cut by attracting more diners to its restaurant and more weddings and corporate events to its scenic oceanfront buildings and grounds. The museum also has $419,000 in reserves that it can draw on -- donated funds that previously had been held back to cover the monthly bond-related interest and fees that it did manage to pay entirely from its own coffers.

Possible austerity measures include layoffs and closing the museum a second day each week.

The museum director said he now expects to enter negotiations with city administrators over the funding cut; the museum foundation's operating agreement allows for 90 days of talks if funding is in dispute. If the sides can't agree, the museum foundation has the right to end the agreement, which extends to 2025, take the 1,600 items it privately owns from the 3,000-piece collection and leave the city to run what's left of the museum on its own.

But Nelson said he can't see pulling the plug: "We're committed to continue to be here and be who we are."

Nelson said the museum's trustees are firm that the agreement put sole legal responsibility for the $3 million in principal on the city.

"We've been compared to a deadbeat by some City Council people, but it's the opposite," he said. "We're trying to be as responsible as we can to every donor and to the letter of the law." Despite the perception that the museum has a moral obligation to pay, Nelson said that funneling funds to the city for a bond debt the museum doesn't legally owe would violate a duty to shepherd its resources for the mission of displaying art.

Nelson, whose watch as museum director began in 2006, after the fund-raising campaign had already run aground, acknowledged that the bond impasse leaves the museum with a big public relations problem.

"I don't think we're the bad guys in this, but we've been made out to be the bad guys. I certainly hear more of that than I thought I would. I'm surprised."

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mike.boehm@latimes.com

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