TULSA, Okla. — Nearly three months after the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame saved itself from near eviction by raising more than $75,000 to pay off long-overdue debts, the struggling Tulsa nonprofit has been hit with another sizeable bill – this one for nearly $12,000 in legal expenses.
Tulsa County commissioners voted this week to send the museum an invoice for attorney expenses the county racked up as it attempted for months to get the hall to pay what it owed in overdue assessments, insurance and utility bills.
The jazz hall finally paid up in early October, just as the county threatened to kick it out of the Art Deco-style Union Depot building the museum leases from the county.
Jason McIntosh, the hall's chief executive officer, said he was surprised to see such a large bill, but that the hall plans to pay it once attorneys look over the itemized bill.
"I was hoping for a nicer Christmas card from the county, but oh well," McIntosh said Friday. "To some degree, that's a pretty hefty price tag for a nonprofit. That money's got to come from somewhere."
Commissioners say the legal services were necessary because the county has a responsibility to taxpayers to make sure the hall paid what it owed. Voters had set aside money under a capital improvement campaign to buy and refurbish the depot building for the jazz hall.
"It's in their rental contract; it's there in black and white," said Karen Keith, one of three commissioners who serve as trustees of the county's industrial authority, which has oversight over the jazz hall.
Financial problems have plagued the museum for years, as questionable budgeting practices and a weak economy proved a bad combination for the 24-year-old nonprofit.
This spring, the organization's nearly $4,000 check to cover a half-year's insurance on the building bounced.
Its past tax documents are littered with red ink. Between Oct. 1, 2009 and Sept. 30, 2010, the organization reported revenue of $354,429 and expenses of $449,714 – a deficit topping $95,000. The next fiscal year, the center made around $31,000.
Part of the problem for the hall's executives is letting people know that the museum, which has free admission, exists and why Oklahoma needs it.
Dozens of musicians have been inducted, even if they don't hail from Oklahoma. They include greats such as Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as Okie-born guitarist Tommy Crook.
Jazz in Oklahoma evolved as African-Americans migrated from the South to the Midwest. Many pioneers of Kansas City swing had roots in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The legendary Count Basie cut his teeth in the state and returned to its clubs to recruit new talent.
North Tulsa's Greenwood District, which historians call Black Wall Street because of its thriving shops, newspapers and nightclubs, was a hotbed for up-and-coming acts.
With its major debts settled, McIntosh said the jazz hall is planning to grow its donor base and increase membership in the museum from 400 to more than 700 members next year.
"Every day gets better," he said.