DIA bid for more help from taxpayers divisive

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

For Laura Peurach, the chance to take her fifth graders to the Detroit Institute of Arts is one of the high points of her academic year. 

"The field trips are an absolute must," said the teacher at Southfield's Thompson K-8 International Academy. "My children love it. We talk about the art we’re going to see, and the respect we have to have for both the art and artists. It’s just a wonderful experience." 

Peurach and other teachers in Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties can count on such trips because under the service agreements between the counties and the museum, everything — even transportation — is covered by the DIA.

Detroit Institute of Arts docent Christian Black tells students from Royal Oak High School about artist Charles McGee.

Special programs for school kids and seniors plus free admission for tri-county residents were among the promises the museum made in 2012, when it asked voters to approve what it vowed would be a one-time only, 10-year millage to help beef up its endowment.

But the DIA is seeking help again. Some residents are strongly opposed to the move to seek renewal two years before the current millage expires — and then scheduling it during the March 10 election when Democrats have a highly contested presidential primary. By contrast, with the Republican presidential nomination largely locked in place, there's speculation their voters might not turn out in force. 

Longtime opponent Leon Drolet, a Macomb County commissioner who heads the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, opposes the renewal. 

“The landscape is heavily tilted in favor of tax increases on the March ballot,” Drolet said. “The museum is apparently confident that the election will be primarily Democrats, who they're convinced will vote for any tax increase no matter what.”

Main entrance of The Detroit Institute of Arts on Friday, February 14, 2020.

Taking the opposite tack is Jennifer Callans, who chairs the Macomb County Art authority, which works with the museum to allocate the special services the counties get in exchange for the tax. 

“I think the DIA’s made a strong case for what services the millage has funded," she said. "So the value proposition to me is very clear."

Reflecting some of the umbrage among opponents, in December a Macomb legislator introduced a bill in the Michigan House to let local governments opt out of the tax. And just last month, two lawsuits were filed against the museum alleging violations of Michigan's open-meetings law and the Freedom of Information Act.

The current millage was approved in 2012, and runs through 2022. But taking a cue from the Detroit Zoo's 2016 millage strategy, the DIA hopes to lock in future funding early with next week's vote. Tri-county voters will be asked to approve another 10-year, 0.2-mill property tax that last year provided the museum with $25.2 million out of its $38 million operating budget.

Drolet sticks up for those opposed to the millage. 

“People who vote no are not anti-art or selfish,” said Drolet. “They’re people trying to hold on, for whom $15 or $20 does matter." Under the millage, a house worth $150,000 would be assessed about $15 a year. 

Overall, the millage costs Macomb, the least-populous of the three counties, about $6 million annually. Wayne County puts in $8 million, and Oakland about $11 million. 

For her part, Peurach will vote for renewal next week, hoping to maintain the subsidized field trips her kids enjoy. "I want to say, 'People — without the millage, none of this is possible," she said. "It changed everything." 

The millage passed in 2012 by more than 60% in Oakland and Wayne counties. In Macomb, however, it passed with 50.5% in favor, making the east side the big question mark this year as well. 

Should the measure pass the two larger counties but fail in Macomb, the DIA would still get close to $20 million a year. But Macomb's legislation requires passage in all three counties before the millage can take effect there.  

Reflecting some of the opposition, state Rep. Jeff Yaroch, R-Richmond, introduced House Bill 5285 to allow villages, cities and townships to opt out of the tax. It's a response to what he calls the DIA's efforts to "game the system" by putting the measure up in a primary election. 

"Almost every community in my district voted 'no' in 2012," he said, "and now DIA has come back early asking for a renewal and put it on the presidential primary, which typically has historically low turnout. I've heard from constituents about how this has gone down."

The bill has yet to be reported out of the House's Tax Police Committee. 

In exchange for the tax funding, the museum waives admission for tri-county residents, who also get reduced rates for ticketed special exhibitions like “Van Gogh in America” opening in June. On passage of the millage eight years ago, the museum also expanded from five days a week to six.

Under its service agreement with the three counties, the DIA also funds special Thursday programs for senior citizens, and will send a bus — at the museum's cost — to pick up any group numbering 20 or more. Programs often involve lectures, museum tours or films, though DIA officials report their Art Bingo events have been particularly popular. 

Visitors look at the Industry murals by artist Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts recently. The DIA is requesting voters pass a 0.2-mill increased millage in the March 10, 2020 election.

The DIA also sponsors free family-friendly events, like performances of "Peter and the Wolf" or "Little Red Riding Hood" at the Royal Oak Theatre. And school visits to the museum are up sharply — in part because the DIA now pays for transportation, once a stumbling block for would-be field trips. 

Before 2012, the museum served about 20,000 local students. Last year, that number hit 75,000, and DIA officials hope it’ll cross 100,000 in a couple of years. 

Peurach, applauds the help the museum gives educators.

“They have great resources for teachers,” she said. “You never have to worry about not having educational materials to supplement field trips. They’re all free on the DIA website.”

The 2012 millage was sold to voters on the grounds that public support would enable the museum to apply its fundraising skills to bulking up its operating endowment, after which public support wouldn’t be necessary. 

That effort fell short. In 2012, the endowment stood at about $90 million. Today it’s close to $240 million, but still nowhere near big enough to earn the $25.2 million the millage supplies.

Responding to the shortfall, DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons notes that in 2012, museum officials couldn’t possibly know what was coming down the pike. 

“They couldn’t know the city of Detroit was going to go bankrupt,” he said, “and that the museum itself would be required to raise $100 million” as its part in the grand bargain that compensated city pensioners, and ultimately resolved the bankruptcy. 

But even had that $100 million been deposited into the endowment, which would have brought it to about $340 million today, Salort-Pons says the DIA fell far short of its goal.

In 2012, the museum was hoping to build a $400 million endowment over 10 years. But to maintain all current operations including services for the three counties, Salort-Pons now estimates they’d need $600 million. 

For his part, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, who says he supports the millage on account of the school programs, says he hasn’t run into a lot of negative pushback.

“Some people thought the millage was supposed to be short-term,” he said, “but the museum's done such a good job reaching out and getting themselves into the communities” that he’s betting most people won’t hold that against it.

Oakland County Executive David Coulter said the millage and the service agreement with the three counties has helped change the museum's culture.

“The DIA is a community treasure now," he said. "It’s not just for the experts. And I think that’s a credit to the museum.”

Even Drolet, who opposes the millage, has good words for the museum.

“I think the current administration is doing a much better job than past ones,” he said. “But I do not support people being forced to pay for the DIA. I think it should be voluntary, not coerced.”

mhodges@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy