Ravalli County Museum Director Tamar Stanley stands in a room set aside for a natural history exhibit called "What's in Your Backyard." The display includes animal mounts from both Africa and Montana. The display is part of a larger exhibit featured at the Hamilton museum on the natural history of the Bitterroot Valley that will run thorugh the midde of April. The event features a variety of exhibits, lectures and children's events.

Voters will decide the future course of the Ravalli County Museum this June.

On Monday, the Ravalli County Commission voted unanimously to place a one mill levy on the June primary ballot to support the Ravalli County Museum.

Members of the Bitter Root Historical Society presented the request to the commission.

The Society’s Board President, Brett Calder, said the decision to request a mill levy wasn’t an easy one to make for an organization filled with conservative and frugal members.

Faced with the fact that the society has been forced to dip into long term reserves to cover expenses at the museum for several years, Calder said the hard decision was made to ask for the community’s support.

“We’re not talking about wants at the museum,” Calder said. “We’re talking about needs.”

The Bitter Root Historical Society has owned, operated and supported the Ravalli County Museum since that organization was incorporated in 1955.

The museum is housed in the Old County Courthouse building, which is owned and maintained by the county. County taxpayers are assessed .22 of a mill to pay the maintenance of the building.

At this point, the museum receives no funding from the county for operational costs.

In 2015, the museum and historical society had $219,700 in expenses. In the same year, the organization brought in $177,200 in revenues. The society dripped into its reserves for the $42,500 needed to balance the books.

A little over $53,000 of the revenues came in the form of grants, which Calder said aren’t a guaranteed source of annual income.

One mill will raise about $74,000.

The levy would cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $2.70 a year.

“We’re not asking the public to fully fund the museum by any means…we basically want to make sure that we have a sustainable operation,” Calder said.

Over the last five years, Calder said the historical society has worked to revitalize the museum by adding new community events, refreshing exhibits, actively seeking new funding sources, and bringing in nationally-toured exhibits.

That effort has paid off with a record attendance from both young and old.

In 2015, 12,745 either visited the museum or took in one of the events it hosted. More than 8,000 of those were children.

Overall attendance was up by 30 percent last year. The number of student field trips to the museum jumped by 25 percent. Throw in all the Saturday events and the number of children visiting the museum increased by almost 400 percent in 2015.

Claire Kemp, co-owner of Bella Boutique, serves on the volunteer historical society board. She also works with the Hamilton Downtown Association, which recently completed a survey that showed people want more child and family-friendly events.

The free Saturday events offered by the museum this past year attracted thousands of children, she said. Since those Saturday events were mostly funded by a one-time grant, they are in danger going away.

Faced with ongoing budget crunch, the museum’s staff is “running on fumes” as it’s forced to continually focus on fundraising. With the additional guaranteed funding the levy would provide, Kemp said staff members would have more time to plan events for the community and its children.

Supporters of the Ravalli County Museum will be reaching out to the community to explain the importance of this base funding for the future of the museum.

Calder likened Monday’s vote by the commission to allow the issue to go on the ballot to a hunter making a successful shot on an elk or a deer. Once the animal is down, the work truly begins.

“We feel like we have a compelling case,” Calder said. “We need to reach out to everyone in the community. We believe that people in the valley will see the value in what we’re asking for.”

The Bitter Root Historical Society’s reserves are down to $145,000.

“That’s part of the reason that we are asking to do this now, instead of waiting until a week before we run out of reserves,” Calder said.

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.