Editorial: DIA's broken vow a slap in the face

The Detroit News

Promises made to taxpayers in exchange for their money should not be casually broken. Nor should cheap tricks be used as a shield against the consequences of breaking those promises.

The Detroit Institute of Arts

The Detroit Institute of Arts is guilty on both counts in its decision to ask voters for an early renewal of the 10-year operations millage that passed in 2012.

At the time, the DIA vowed it would not seek to renew the millage, pledging it would use the tax dollars as a bridge to keep the doors open while it raised money for an enhanced endowment.

But on Monday, the DIA board voted to seek a renewal next spring, citing changed circumstances that make keeping its promise impossible. Specifically, the board says the demands of the grand bargain that spared the museum from the auction block during Detroit's bankruptcy has slowed endowment fundraising.

That may be a fair reason to break the no-renewal vow. If so, the case should be made to taxpayers in an above-board election.

Instead, the DIA will attempt to place the extension on the ballot of what will be a low and selective turnout election — Michigan's partisan presidential primary on March 10.

It's a low tactic that makes the decision to break the promise to taxpayers even more unsavory. The board knows turnout election will be light and heavily Democratic, since the Republican presidential nominating race is not as competitive. 

We've long taken the position that tax and bond issues should not be snuck through in obscure elections, but instead go on the November ballot to assure maximum participation by those who will be paying the bills.

In defense of its request, the DIA notes that it had to raise an unexpected $100 million to pay for its share of the grand bargain. It's endowment now stands at $232 million, up from the $92 million on hand before the millage was approved, but short of the $300 million the museum said at the time it needed to sustain operations tax-free.

Today, the DIA says it would need a $600 million endowment to live without the millage. That may be in part because spending has ballooned to $38 million annually from about $25 million before the tax, which raises about $26 million a year.

In the seven years since the millage was approved, the DIA has expanded services to the community and enhanced the museum experience. It remains a valued cultural asset for the region — that's why we supported the millage in 2012 and the grand bargain during the bankruptcy. 

But compounding the ill will of a broken promise by seeking the renewal in such an underhanded manner is a slap in the face to a community that has sacrificed for the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Before it goes to voters, the millage renewal must be approved by the arts authorities of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. At the least, the counties should insist that if a renewal is sought, the request should be made on the November ballot.