Are we headed down a familiar path with new museum?

Here is a guest column that appeared in the Sun Herald on Thursday, March 22, 2012, the morning the City Council voted unanimously to move forward with the project to construct a new Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum on Point Cadet.

By Mayor A.J. Holloway

Among the many memorable lines that Ronald Reagan is associated with is one that he used when facts were blurred or slanted on an issue: “There you go again,” the former president said in more than one debate.

This debate about the proposed funding for the construction of a new Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum could make one wonder: Here we go again? Are we about to go down a familiar path?

Now, ardent supporters of the seafood industry museum will question my allegiance to the museum. The fact is, I realize and appreciate the importance of museums, historic preservation and cultural affairs. I have a stronger allegiance to financial accountability. I have found that residents of Biloxi also share that appreciation for financial accountability.

We have been through our share of belt-tightening, sometimes caused by overspending. Such was the case several years ago on the city budget. One year, I twice vetoed the city budget because I thought it would lead to a reduction in the number of city employees or pay cuts. The city council overrode my vetoes. What happened? We raided the city’s rainy day fund – one-time money – and used it to fund employee pay raises, a recurring expense. Our employees endured reductions in benefits, furloughs, and we’ve had to cut the number of employees where we could.

Have we forgotten about the months and months of teeth-gnashing debates over the Ohr-O’Keefe funding? Museum staffers have endured pay cuts, layoffs, reductions in benefits, even as the city is paying half of the monthly utility bills and all of the annual insurance on this facility.

Here we go again?

The fact is, construction of this museum has been fraught with delays. Seafood museum administrators wanted to re-locate from their Point Cadet location to the former Tullis site, north of the pier where the Biloxi schooners dock when they are both in service. However, the historic sensitivity of that site – an area of ancient Indian burial grounds – kept FEMA, MEMA and the Choctaw Indians from allowing the move. That tied up things for years.

Then, faced with the prospect of moving back the original Point Cadet site, there was a desire to build a bigger and better museum. FEMA capped the funding. They said a museum similar in size and function would be funded.

In more than one meeting, the seafood museum leadership, their architect and the project manager were told how much money would be available. To make all of this happen, we planned to move money from several other projects – just as we did to construct the visitors center, the library and civic center.

Still, the price estimate of the new museum came in a million dollars higher than the funding available. We cannot afford to NOT rebuild the seafood museum, but at the same time we cannot afford to build beyond our means.

And let’s not forget that none of these issues speak to the cost of ownership – pesky, recurring expenses like insurance, power bills, maintenance and the like.

The modus operandi for the museum administration has been to appeal to the City Council, to suggest that not supporting the museum is akin to trashing Biloxi’s history and heritage. That’s what will be happening this morning at City Hall.

Here we go again? I hope not.