Long-standing dispute between town of Boise and Boise Art Museum spills into public view over museum lease

The town of Boise and the Boise Art Museum are in bad shape.

On Tuesday, a long-standing dispute over a possible rental agreement between BAM and the city came to light when members of Boise city council ordered city staff to halt all financial support to the museum until the organization agrees to enter into a rental agreement. The action comes after multiple failed negotiations dating back several years, which intensified recently after the city normalized its lease policy for nonprofits over the summer.

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The museum, located on the edge of Julia Davis Park, is housed in a building owned by the city. Under the current agreement, BAM pays $ 1 per year in rent to the town of Boise, and officials say taxpayers are covering the salary cost of $ 45,000 per year for a maintenance employee for upkeep. Municipal authorities have been trying to sign a new lease with the museum since 2017.

Local governments and other organizations wishing to donate buildings or space to other organizations they wish to support often rent space for $ 1 per year. The city had similar arrangements with other organizations before formulating its new policy.

Now, some members of Boise City Council say they are on their last legs and trying to force an open negotiation with BAM at a public works meeting to resolve the dispute.

“Here’s my direction: we need a lease,” said Patrick Pageant, city council member, almost immediately after city council staff finished presenting the issue. “We have a rental policy. The memorandum of understanding we have now is not working. This creates a liability for both parties, we have had these conversations for five years now with no progress, and we need progress, so my leadership would be to withhold financial support until we can negotiate a lease and resolve this issue. .

Years of negotiations

BAM executive director Melanie Fales told BoiseDev the museum hopes to strike a deal with the town of Boise and continue its partnership, which dates back to the Great Depression. She said the museum wanted “good faith negotiations” and an assessment. Fales said BAM needs to make sure the facility is “basically a solid building” before signing a lease with the city.

“BAM cannot, in good faith, forgo its capital investments or have continued donor contributions undermined by a deal that potentially jeopardizes the stability and sustainability of the organization,” Fales wrote. “For example, the proposed 10-year term creates an impractical and unstable situation that prevents future fundraising for capital improvements. We have requested a working session to discuss the details of a new arrangement. We hope the city agrees that in-depth and thoughtful discussions are essential as we continue to serve the best interests of our community, now and in the long term. ”

The Town of Boise rents out several properties to Boise nonprofits across town.

Until recently, all of these nonprofits had separate lease agreements, rent payments, and other arrangements governing their partnership with the city. Boise City Council chose to standardize this in August with a new, more consistent set of guidelines to reduce the city’s liability and make things fairer for all organizations.

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These new guidelines include rent at 25% of fair market value or $ 2,000 per month, whichever is lower, leases ranging from one to ten years and requiring nonprofits to pay for utilities. and minor repairs.

As part of this process, municipal staff presented a draft lease to BAM in June. This included an online rent payment with other nonprofit partners and a ten-year lease with a right of first refusal. He also asked the museum to pay utility costs and cover employee maintenance costs. The lease proposal ordered the museum to institute “direct resident benefits” since taxpayers subsidize it.

In essence, the city says it should prove to be a benefit to the city’s taxpayers in return for what it provides to the museum.

“No substantive return”

It was not well received, according to city officials.

City staff said BAM was frustrated with the turnover of City of Boise employees over the course of several years of negotiations. But staff say there has been continuity in recent months, and BAM hasn’t provided “substantial feedback.”

In September, the city said it came back with a compromise deal allowing BAM to start paying tiered rents from 2026, with the full amount starting in 2031 and the city covering maintenance staff salaries until 2024. The city also proposed that the museum take the next ten years to decide how to implement “direct resident benefits”.

Staff told the board BAM rejected the compromise, saying an appraisal was required before signing a lease and that the museum requested a 25-year lease. BAM also disputed that the city had paid the cost of the maintenance employee. Fales, executive director of BAM, also declined to attend Tuesday’s city council meeting, city staff told the council.

Fales told BoiseDev that BAM does not employ municipal workers “in any capacity”, and the $ 45,000 funds for a full-time maintenance worker described by Washburn are just a payment to BAM for cover building maintenance costs. She said building maintenance costs exceed $ 45,000 and BAM employees respond to building issues around the clock.

City Council member Jimmy Hallyburton said he did not understand why BAM staff requested a working session to discuss the issue but did not attend Tuesday’s meeting. Mayor Lauren McLean’s chief of staff Courtney Washburn said she could not clarify their decision and that this meeting was “put on their radar” a month ago after meeting Fales.

Fales said the museum had been invited to present at the city council meeting but needed more time to research before attending.

“We informed city staff that we weren’t able to make a presentation at this time and would like to have more time to gather the information needed for the presentation to city council,” Fales wrote. “We shared a written statement with city council, and city staff knew in advance that we would not be showing at the meeting.”

What is BAM asking for?

Hallyburton said he saw BAM’s counter-offer to the lease, which included a $ 15 million payment to the museum, and was interested in reaching a deal. Still, he wasn’t sure how to proceed given their reluctance to attend Tuesday’s meeting.

“What I’m trying to understand is that I’m always open to a conversation if they’re willing to have the conversation,” Hallyburton said. “If we can have a working session where we can get all the details, that would be great, but it puts us in a weird situation where we came up with this, and it was turned down.”

Asked about a request for $ 15 million or any other request from the city, Fales said the museum was considering various options to strike a new deal. She did not share any details.

“We have offered a number of agreement options based on other national models and have tried to open conversations with staff, council members and the mayor,” Fales wrote. “We had made progress with the old staff and administration, but had to start the process over with each new administration. For this to be successful, we know it takes open dialogue, time and attention to create an agreement that serves our community, the city and the museum.

According to BAM’s latest annual report, the museum had total assets of $ 4.55 million as of April 30, with $ 839,501 in cash or cash equivalents and $ 550,448 in certificates of deposit. Assets do not include the value of art the museum owns.

In the fiscal year ended April 30, BAM said it generated $ 2.11 million in “support and total income” and generated expenses of $ 1.91 million – adding $ 196,653 in net cash compared to to the previous year.

Lease negotiation “should take place in a session like this”

City council chairwoman Elaine Clegg agreed that BAM should take the time to grow to bear these additional costs, but she was not so keen on giving the museum ten years to develop benefits for the residents of Boise.

“If we were to go ahead, I would hesitate to give anyone ten years to give a resident’s allowance,” she said. “They can come up with a resident’s benefit tomorrow based on income and admission, and I suspect that people who don’t come today because they can’t afford it would use it, so it won’t be good for them. would cost nothing. Either way, I’m not prepared to wait ten years for this benefit.

In her lengthy email response to questions from BoiseDev, Fales described the multiple programs BAM participates in to engage the community. This includes accreditation with the American Alliance of Museums, where BAM has been recognized for its “leadership in welcoming immigrant communities” and its “innovative strategies for inviting underserved visitors”. It also offers a free digital program called Online ArtReach to help Idaho schoolchildren deliver themed lessons, discussion questions, and art-making videos for K-12 students. Art teachers can reserve supplies for a hands-on component and free BAM passes for students and their families.

McLean concluded the meeting by stating that any lease negotiations that deviate from standard city policy should be done in a public works session, not in small one-on-one meetings with groups. of council members out of sight of the public.

“We believe that a working session is a working session, and because the board is the body that adopted the lease policy, it is not for us to privately negotiate a waiver of this policy,” McLean said. “Doing this as a body, making a decision transparently on whether or not you want to make an allowance is right in front of you, but it should happen in a session like this. “

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