Facing pandemic-induced budget crunch, Collier museums scale back new projects

Patrick Riley Naples Daily NewsPublished 4:35 PM EDT Sep 15, 2020Hamstrung by a global pandemic that sent loca

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Hamstrung by a global pandemic that sent local tourism tax collections tumbling, Collier County’s museum system is scaling back planned projects.

The budget for Collier’s five county-owned museums, which are primarily funded through the county’s tourism tax, will be about $300,000 lighter in fiscal 2021, going from $2.63 million last year to $2.33 million this upcoming fiscal year, an 11% reduction. The county’s new fiscal year starts Oct. 1 and runs through Sept. 30, 2021.

The museums’ budget took “quite a hit,” Steve Carnell, director of the county’s public services department, told commissioners during a June budget workshop. 

“It’s probably taken the harshest hit of any in my group,” he said, adding that the operating budget had to be reduced by a quarter, or $464,000, in the current fiscal year. 

Collier museums receive $2 million annually from the county’s bed tax, but with the coronavirus pandemic would-be-visitors stayed away and tourism tax revenues plummeted in Southwest Florida. 

Due to the budget crunch the museums slowed and staggered filling three positions that came open this year, said Collier Museums Director Amanda Townsend. 

The museums have also scaled back their marketing budget, although the county’s tourism division will help fill the gap partially, she said.

But the majority of savings will come from planned capital projects that have been shelved for now.

More: Tourist tax collections plummet in SWFL amid pandemic

And: Collier projects millions in reduced government revenue due to pandemic

Among those is the first phase of a garden conceptual plan at the Collier Museum at Government Center. 

The $156,000 project includes, among other things, grading at the southern end of the property, demolishing a non-conforming shed and Calusa chickees, and creating a new maintenance area by adding a prefabricated building for a workshop and equipment.

The objective there is to redevelop particularly the outdoor facilities, Townsend said.

“Just as they age and as they've been pieced together over the years and being able to offer more attractive events and rental spaces,” she said. “And just raise the profile of our exterior exhibits there, create a little bit more interpretive fabric among the different features that we have in the garden here.”

Also put on hold for now are plans for the Museum of the Everglades main gallery where permanent exhibits are more than 15 years old. “Spot upgrades have kept exhibits fresh and added content, but created visual dissonance in the space,” according to a description of the $20,000 project.

Planned lecture space improvements at the Everglades museum for $32,000 were also paused.

And at the Marco Island Historical Museum, a $22,000 project to demolish a non-functioning waterfall in the pond area and to plan a new outdoor natural history exhibit was also deferred. 

The county's other two museums include the Immokalee Pioneer Museum at Roberts Ranch and the Naples Depot Museum.

But despite the dwarfed capital project budget next fiscal year, museum officials will have enough money for security cameras and assessment of historic buildings, Townsend said. 

“When we have tough financial decisions to make, you know, in my mind, safety and security and historic preservation, taking good care of the things that you already have, becomes the priority,” she said. “And then, you know, doing the things that are new and exciting those are the ones that have to be deferred.”

As has been the case for many organizations, the pandemic has also changed the way the museums operate. 

Instead of the usual summer harvest event in Immokalee, they held a mango giveaway drive-thru, Townsend said. Nearly 300 people came, and everybody got a bag with some mangoes, she said.

Hybrid lectures with limited seating that’s appropriately social-distanced and the opportunity to participate via a video call are also being considered. 

“More than the financial hit, I think COVID is shaping what the visitor experience will be like,” Townsend said.

To be sure, financial constraints could become a concern in the future with the museums currently capped at $2 million in tourist tax funding. 

Patrons can visit the five museums for free, and revenue from special events sponsorship or facility rentals to the public are not enough to close the gap as expenses go up and revenue stays the same, Townsend said.

“For the long-term future that's a concern for us, of course, the cost of doing business continues to increase year-over-year and when our main source of revenue does not have a way to increase, you know, eventually you'll get to a pinch point,” she said.

Museum officials plan to discuss the subject with commissioners later this fall.

“We'll be having that conversation and trying to figure out what the long-term solution for the museums for financial sustainability will be,” Townsend said.

In case you missed it: Collier commissioners asked to shift money from Sheriff's Office during budget talks

More: Museums, art gallery leverage pandemic to serve art, history

Commissioners, meanwhile, will meet Thursday evening to adopt the county’s budget and its property tax rates. 

Collier officials are proposing to keep the same rates as last year, which means homeowners will pay more in taxes to the county if their property values have increased. 

If adopted, the tax rate for the general fund would be $356 per $100,000 of taxable value, and the rate for the unincorporated area general fund would be $81 per $100,000 of taxable value.

Homeowners who live in unincorporated Collier pay both the general fund tax and the unincorporated area general fund tax. Collier homeowners who live in cities, like Naples or Marco Island, pay the county's general fund tax and their city's property tax.

The final public budget meeting will be held Thursday at 5:05 p.m. in the commission chamber on the third floor of the county's administrative building at 3299 Tamiami Trail E.

Connect with the reporter at patrick.riley@naplesnews.com or on Twitter @PatJRiley.

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