Columns » Martin

The Shaft

You already paid once to restore the Liberty Memorial. Why do costs keep rising?

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Unrealistic expectations. A dwindling endowment. Pleas for a bailout.

Union Station?

No. Liberty Memorial.

Restored in the 1990s and recently outfitted with the National World War I Museum, the Liberty Memorial appears to be headed down the same disappointing path as Union Station, the beautiful but dysfunctional old train station that Kansas and Missouri residents joined hands to save.

Actually, the Liberty Memorial presents an even more aggravating set of circumstances. Union Station's saviors made honest mistakes, such as thinking that revenue generated by Science City ticket sales could support operations. The World War I Museum's supporters, by contrast, have resorted to tricks — and Kansas City taxpayers face consequences as a result.

The museum opened beneath the mighty obelisk this past December. It tells the ghastly war's story in grim, journalistic detail. Reviews have been mostly positive. A critic from The Wall Street Journal wrote that the museum "succeeds on all fronts."

It wasn't ceremony but rather the recent city budget that got me thinking about the Liberty Memorial and the new museum. City Manager Wayne Cauthen has submitted a budget that calls for a 58 percent increase in the city's support, from $988,000 a year to $1,560,900.

The subsidy consists of $1,245,000 for operations plus $315,900 in interest from a maintenance endowment. Voters created the endowment when they approved a temporary sales tax to save the Liberty Memorial in 1998. The $45 million tax supported a restoration for the crumbling monument, which had closed to the public in 1994.

Generally an honorable endeavor, the restoration met with some controversy. The ballot language restricted the sales tax to repair and maintenance. But the Kansas City parks board also wanted to build a new museum for the 400,000 artifacts that the Liberty Memorial Association had collected over the years and was itching to display in a grander setting.

The parks board went ahead and ordered the contractors to build space for a museum's eventual installation. The money to pay for it was supposed to come from private donations.

In 2001, then City Auditor Mark Funkhouser, who is now running for mayor, made a convincing case that the sales tax ended up paying for museum work. His audit noted that, after the ballot mandated that any sales-tax money would be spent only on repair and maintenance, the cost of the museum fell (on paper) by $8 million, though the total cost of the project increased — a suspicious turn of events. (The parks board denied mishandling the money.)

Even with the accounting tricks, museum supporters still needed to raise about $15 million from private donors. Money was hard to find. Restaurateur Carl DiCapo, then the president of the Liberty Memorial Association, told The Kansas City Star in 2001, "Believe me, we'll get the money."

They didn't.

So museum supporters went back to taxpayers. In 2004, voters approved a $20 million bond issue to pay for most of the costs associated with building the museum. (The Liberty Memorial Association expected to raise an additional $6.5 million in private donations.) The city also agreed to pay $625,000 a year for 10 years.

DiCapo and others sold the assistance package as a final boost before the museum became self-sufficient. "We're not going to ask for any more," DiCapo told the City Council in 2004. "That's it."

It wasn't.

Last fall, Liberty Memorial Association officials approached the city about bumping up the monument's annual subsidy. The council approved an extra $827,000 over the current and coming fiscal years. (The city spent an additional $85,000 on the inaugural gala.)

The numbers begin to add up. In addition to the $1.5 million for operations and maintenance, the city has to pay off the bonds approved in 2004. The debt service is $1.4 million in the fiscal year that begins in May, according to the city's budget office.

So the Liberty Memorial will cost the city nearly $3 million in 2007-08. That's a big hunk of change, one that taxpayers probably didn't envision having to shell out when they approved the original $45 million rescue nine years ago.

Steve Berkheiser, the Liberty Memorial Association's executive director, has tried to cast the broken promises in a favorable light. "This supplement is really just a shared investment," he told the city's finance committee in December, when the operations subsidy doubled.

Berkheiser claims that the new museum pays for itself by bringing visitors to town. I'm not so sure Kaiser Wilhelm mementos are much of a draw, however. The city budget forecasts 75,000 Liberty Memorial visitors next year. Previous estimates called for twice that many.

It's early, but the Liberty Memorial seems destined to join Union Station and the 18th and Vine District as tourist destinations that aren't. The financial picture looks bleak. The city, for instance, is raiding the Liberty Memorial endowment in order to pay a portion of the recently doubled operations bill.

I called the current Liberty Memorial Association president, John Dillingham, to talk about what's happened. Dillingham concedes that there have been "challenges." But he prefers to focus on the positive. Liberty Memorial, he notes, has been recognized by Congress as the nation's official World War I museum. Of course, the designation didn't come with any money. "I would not get hung up on the numbers," Dillingham says.

In spite of the deceptions and failures, good feelings prevail. DiCapo and Berkheiser bathed in admiration when they appeared before the finance committee in December. Committee Chairman Chuck Eddy thanked the men for their efforts in building a "world-renowned" museum. "It is absolutely fantastic," said Eddy, ever the cheerleader.

I wanted to speak with DiCapo and Berkheiser. DiCapo, who was paid $47,000 by the Liberty Memorial Association in 2004 and 2005, did not return calls. Berkheiser refused to grant an interview. A retired brigadier general who served 30 years in the Marines, Berkheiser took offense at the Pitch's use of Liberty Memorial as a phallic symbol in the paper's recent sex issue.

The memorial, Berkheiser told me in an e-mail, showcases patriotism, honor, courage and sacrifice, values that he claimed are not recognized by the Pitch "but are surely the values of the 441 Kansas Citians that died in the defense of Liberty and Freedom in WWI and millions of other Veterans."

Moreover, he wrote, "Our nation is wrestling with issues today that once again put servicemembers in harm's way and their families under great strain. To portray the Memorial in your recent 'Sex Issue' is not only in bad taste but is insensitive and degrading to the efforts of better men and women than you and your staff."

Yep. Thirty years in the Marines, and the guy can't take a dick joke.

It's just a limp excuse for not answering to the public. You already paid once to

Without the Citizens Association's endorsement, Mark Forsythe is going to have to run pretty hard to win his council race. Want to get elected? Bow down before us and give us your money.

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