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Frisco Historical Society to fold

HARRIET HAMILTONsummit daily news
Summit Daily/Kristin Skvorc
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FRISCO The board of trustees of the Frisco Historical Society recently announced its decision to dissolve the organization as of July 31. Founded in 1983, the nonprofit organization operated the Frisco Historic Park until this February, when the town assumed management of the museum and its assets.The principal impetus for the boards decision was a negotiated agreement with the Internal Revenue Service that requires an end to the society, treasurer Julie Turner said. The board discovered last fall that executive director Rita Bartram, the organizations only full-time employee, had not sent employee taxes to the IRS for at least two years, despite withholding the funds from the paychecks of the societys two part-time employees, Turner said. Required paperwork related to withholding taxes had also not been filed, she added.The board first became concerned about possible inadequate accounting in the spring of 2005 when Bartram could not produce income tax returns for the previous year. When boardmembers began looking into the societys financial documentation, it took several months to discover the extent of Bartrams negligence.The books were really hard to discern, board vice president Claudia Kreamelmeyer said.According to then-town council historical society liaison Deb Helton, getting specific information from the IRS was next to impossible.They would tell us, but they wouldnt really tell us, Helton said, referring to potential payment shortfalls. We had an inkling that there was a concern, but we couldnt figure it out. Part of the problem was that Bartram would send the IRS an occasional payment, but she never included the accompanying paperwork.In October, the IRS finally informed the board of the scope of its accounting shortfalls. Around $14,000 in back withholding taxes were overdue as well as nearly $25,000 in penalties. The IRS claimed multiple delinquency notices had been sent to the society, but no response had been forthcoming.Boardmembers believe today the $14,000 withheld from employee checks but not submitted to the IRS was diverted by Bartram to pay operating expenses. Over the course of several years, Bartram had drafted checks to pay the IRS and had posted them in the societys books, but the checks never cleared the bank.The money was spent on other things, Turner said. If theres any accusation (of Bartram), its manipulation, not fraud or embezzlement.Bartram, a former historical society volunteer and past board president, took over the executive director position in 1999. Helton said when the board questioned her about the accounting irregularities this January she neither apologized nor explained. Bartram has since relocated to Boulder and did not respond to several phone messages.In its attempt to rectify the societys finances, the board made a deal with the IRS. In return for paying the $14,000 in back taxes, the IRS agreed to forgive the entire $25,000 in penalties and interest on the condition that the nonprofit dissolve.Its not exactly bankruptcy, but its like that, Kreamelmeyer said.Turner emphasized that the board considers itself responsible for the $14,000 liability. The debt will be paid in full before the group is disbanded, she added.As for the buildings and historical artifacts owned by the society, Turner said they will probably be handed over to the town before the July 31 sunset date.Frisco steps inTown financial support of the historic park operation had increased steadily in recent years. Before its February assumption of park management, the town had committed $51,000, or more than half the parks annual budget of nearly $90,000, for 2006.More than a third of that amount had been disbursed to the historical society by mid-February when society members approached the town council to ask Frisco to take over the park. Kreamelmeyer told the council that rising utility costs, the burden of fundraising and loss of an executive director Bartram resigned in January had become too much for the all-volunteer board.Weve worked hard to create the park, but the management has become a pretty daunting task, she said at the February council work session. Its more than we can do.Assistant town manager Theresa Casey said any problems the historical society was having with the IRS had absolutely no bearing on the towns decision to assume management.We knew they were having financial difficulties, she said recently. But Im not sure we knew exactly what they were.Since the town assumed control of the park at the end of February, operations have cost the town around $20,000. When the original $51,000 included in the towns 2006 budget has been spent, the town council will have to decide the direction the town wants to go with the historic park, which Casey said will happen in the near future.Town Councilmember Tom Looby said the fact that Frisco owns the park property and seven of its 11 structures puts pressure on the town to support the operation.We have a fiduciary responsibility to maintain an adequate level of funding, he said. I anticipate well take a hard look at it in the new budget cycle.The challenge of managing historical sitesIn 1983, when the Frisco Historical Society was founded, many long-time Frisco residents reacted to the potential loss of their heritage.There was a cabin going down every week, Kreamelmeyer said.During the last two decades, as fewer artifacts remained to be saved, the societys shifted away from preservation and toward day-to-day management, and the town was happy to let the group be responsible for the historic park.Without denying responsibility for financial errors, Turner said many on the societys board felt the organization had found itself in a role it was not designed for.We evolved into park managers, rather than preservationists, she said. Our original goal was to preserve and educate, and our role in the capacity of preservationists has been reached. The town of Breckenridge is confronting similar issues with its Barney Ford House Museum, town spokesperson Kim DiLallo said. The Saddlerock Society, a nonprofit group organized principally to restore the property, does not provide staff for the museum. The Summit Historical Society, which is partially underwritten by the town, provides volunteer docents to greet visitors at the site.DiLallo said its been difficult to get enough volunteers and that the town is currently rethinking its approach to heritage tourism. Breckenridge recently hired consultants to develop a comprehensive heritage tourism plan, but no decisions have yet been made. Possibilities for management of historical sites include direct town management, such as in Frisco, establishment of a community nonprofit organization, or some blend of the two approaches.Despite the painful experience of the last year, several of the Frisco Historical Society board members expressed optimism that town management will ultimately be a blessing for the historic park.Its great what the town has done, Kreamelmeyer said. That they have taken over their park.Harriet Hamilton can be reached at (970) 668-4628, or at hhamilton@summitdaily.com


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