Paying for Public Art

Of all the possible city millages discussed in the last few years, from human services to safety services, an arts millage seemed the least likely–until August, that is, when a proposal to put one on the November ballot passed unanimously.

Why art instead of, say, police? “Safety services are a primary function of government,” says mayor John Hieftje, one of the sponsors. “That’s why we have a general fund. As far as human services go, our city contributes more than any in the state, and I think we should. But art is extra.”

“Human and safety services millages are interesting and compelling ideas,” says co-sponsor Christopher Taylor. “But Proposal B, the Art in Public Places millage, is a very small millage meant to replace a current program”–the “Percent for Art” program that funds art projects as part of capital improvement projects.

“The way it works now, if we have a new project in water, sewers, or streets, one percent is dedicated to art,” Hieftje explains. “But the money never leaves [the funds for] water, sewers, or streets: the art has to serve the purpose of whatever the fund is.” The controversial Herbert Dreiseitl water sculpture at City Hall, for instance, was primarily paid for with stormwater funds–and because it’s fed by the building’s stormwater system, it ran dry during last summer’s drought.

If it passes, the 0.1 mill arts tax will cost the average homeowner $10.97 per year for four years and raise about $460,000 the first year. “Funds for this kind of thing are typically used for everything from installations to statues to murals,” says Deb Polich, longtime director of Artrain and head of the Ann Arbor Arts Alliance. “The public arts commission already has fourteen projects under consideration.”

There’s no organized opposition to the millage, and only one councilmember, Jane Lumm, doesn’t support it. “I very much support finally offering voters a chance to weigh in on this controversial issue,” she emails. “However, we have not worked the private side of the funding equation as hard as we could. This isn’t a huge millage, [but] the tax burden for AA homeowners is already enormous. For many–including those on fixed incomes–every dollar of tax increase is a dollar taken away from something else, and for some folks, it is not a stretch to say they are on the way to getting taxed right out of their homes.

“For these reasons,” Lumm concludes, “my position all along has been that Ann Arbor’s public art should be privately funded and I will not be voting for the millage.”

“It will pass,” Hieftje predicts. And if it doesn’t? “It’s not a big deal,” the mayor says. “I don’t take it personally. Someone will probably try again in a couple of years.”

A School Board Challenge

For the first time since her first election to the Ann Arbor Board of Education in 2003, Deb Mexicotte is facing an opponent. Dale Leslie, who owned the former Leslie Office Supply, criticizes board members for the priorities they listed at their August retreat. First on the list was improving mutual “trust” and “relationships.” In a YouTube video, Leslie responded, “I believe our children should be priority number one!”

Leslie stresses his business experience and volunteer work with the Kiwanis and the Chamber of Commerce. In response to the district’s pinched finances–state cuts in per-pupil funding alone will cost Ann Arbor almost $12 million this year–Leslie says the district should explore “a project that generates revenue.” As an example, he mentions how the Jackson Kiwanis raised $35,000 by selling flags.

While Leslie says he will be campaigning mostly online, “I will be knocking on doors,” says Deb Mexicotte. Currently board president, she points out that test scores for lower-achieving students improved during her tenure–in part, she believes, because the district created more consistency in the curriculum.

Mexicotte points out that only one vote at the retreat separated the top priority of working together from the goal of improving the district’s finances. She also notes that while tensions rose after the board’s rapid turnover a few years ago, when three trustees resigned for various reasons, members still often vote unanimously. Just last month, she emails, members agreed by consensus to begin “laying the groundwork for the possibility of a county-wide Educational millage” in 2014.

What Next for the Library?

By far the biggest local issue on the Nov. 6 ballot is the Ann Arbor District Library’s request to replace its downtown branch. The proposed $65 million, thirty-year bond would cost the owner of a $250,000 home about $70 a year (see “Selling a Millage,” October). All four incumbents seeking re-election to the AADL board are strongly in favor of the project, while a single challenger questions its timing.

The incumbents–Rebecca Head, Nancy Kaplan, Margaret Leary, and Prudence Rosenthal–praise library director Josie Parker’s leadership and fiscal discipline, noting that she supervised construction of three new branches within the AADL’s existing millage, all finished on budget and on time. They argue that if voters turn down the bond to replace the main library, the AADL will be forced to spend more operating funds on what Head calls “Band-Aid repairs.”

At a League of Women Voters forum in October, Lyn Powrie Davidge described herself the “renegade in the group,” because she opposes the millage. “There may be a need for a new library,” she says, “but now is not the time.” Davidge, who ran for the board unsuccessfully in 2010, also thinks the library needs to “communicate better” with the community–for example, she emails, by “[h]olding Board meetings in branches or other neighborhood locations.”