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Council works to correct Wonders of Wildlife contract

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Last night, Springfield City Council held a first reading for a special ordinance and unanimously approved an amendment to it seeking to clarify the terms of a 1999 agreement between Wonders of Wildlife and the city following a 1998 voter-approved ballot initiative that directed hotel-motel tax dollars to go to the museum district for capital improvements. The amendment would require WOW officials to present annual reports to the city on the use of hotel-motel tax funds it receives.

The ordinance, which asks WOW to enter into a new agreement with the city, will receive its second reading and is expected to be voted on at the Aug. 8 meeting.

The city manager’s office became aware of the need for the ordinance following a report released July 11 by Internal Auditor Kristy Bork that found there were discrepancies between how hotel-motel dollars were being spent by the museum district and where voters actually designated those funds.

In City Manager Greg Burris’ explanation to council, he said “the funds paid to WOW since 1998 have been used consistent with the agreement.” The agreement between the city and WOW allowed tax dollars going to the museum to be used for operations or capital improvements. But, according to Bork, the ballot language specifies that those tax funds be designated for capital grants, which can then be used for capital improvement projects.

“The agreement basically would become more specific in saying that (WOW) would have to use the funds for capital purposes,” Bork said in a phone interview after the meeting.

She said her audit report on the hotel-motel tax was her first since taking the position of internal auditor in October. She said the city manager’s office was very responsive to her report, and worked to get the ordinance before council following her findings that the agreement between the city and WOW needed to be amended.

City Councilman John Rush said in the March 14 print edition story “The Morris Touch” that he and council requested museum officials designate the hotel-motel funds towards its educational efforts through partners such as the Missouri Department of Conservation and Springfield Public Schools. Rush said at the time that the city had began looking at the museum district’s use of public funds following delays in the renovations taking place at WOW, which have been in progress since December 2007.

Peggy Smith, executive director of the museum, confirmed that the more than $1 million in hotel-motel funds the district had received since the closure of the facility had been used for educational purposes, in line with the council request.

City Attorney Dan Wichmer said that the first part of the 1998 ballot initiative, which says funds should be used “to promote recreation, education, tourism and the local economy” suggested to city officials that money could be spent by WOW on educational efforts, thereby influencing the language of the 1999 agreement. However, after Bork examined the ballot language, she determined that the funds should be dedicated to capital grants for WOW and other nonprofits such as the Discovery Center, which also receive the tax funds.

“There hasn’t been a situation where we thought the money wasn’t being used in accordance with the contract,” Wichmer said. He said WOW officials have been notified about the issue and have indicated that they are willing to use the funds in accordance with Bork’s recommendations.

For more on the July 25 Springfield City Council meeting, look to the Aug. 1 Springfield Business Journal print edition.
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