Ann Arbor Art Millage Idea Floated

Responding to a phone call from The Chronicle, Marsha Chamberlin, chair of the Ann Arbor public art commission, reported that a city council resolution about a millage to support public art might be discussed at the council’s Aug. 9 meeting. [It was, in fact, subsequently added to the agenda.]

Chamberlin’s understanding of the proposal is for a question to be placed on the Nov. 6 ballot, asking voters to pay a 0.1 mill tax to support public art – which would replace Ann Arbor’s current funding strategy for the public art program.

In place since 2007, the city’s Percent for Art program requires that 1% of the budget for any capital improvement project be set aside for public art – up to a cap of $250,000 per project. More than $1 million in Percent for Art revenues have been expended to date, primarily for the Herbert Dreiseitl water sculpture in front of city hall.

As of June 30, 2012, an additional $1,367,148 was available in Percent for Art funds collected from previous capital projects. And based on upcoming capital projects, another $320,837 in Percent for Art revenues is anticipated in FY 2013. That includes estimated funding from the following sources: water fund ($55,797); stormwater fund ($20,608); street millage ($112,700); sewer fund ($93,610); parks millage ($11,647); and administration ($26,475).

The public art millage proposal does not stem from the public art commission – as Chamberlin indicated that she had not heard anything about the specific proposal until a few days ago, when she’d received a phone call to get her reaction to the concept. Today, she’d been informed by the mayor’s office that the proposal would be brought forward at the council’s meeting later this evening.

One mill is $1 for every $1,000 of taxable value on a property. So for a house worth $200,000, with a state-equalized value of $100,000, a 0.1 mill public art tax would cost that property owner $10 per year. In Ann Arbor, a rule of thumb for the amount of revenue generate by 1 mill is $4.5 million. So a 0.1 mill public art tax would generate roughly $450,000 annually.

The Percent for Art program has been fairly controversial once the amounts of money involved became clearer, constraints on possible use of the funds became apparent, and objections were raised to some particular projects – most notably a water-themed sculpture by German artist Herbert Dreiseitl that had a budget of $750,000. The city council has contemplated revisions to the public art ordinance on three occasions.

As far back as Feb. 1, 2009 at a council Sunday caucus, Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) publicly expressed her concern about the large amount of money the program was generating. Later that year, at a Dec. 7, 2009 meeting, the council gave initial approval to an ordinance revision that would have reduced the allotment from 1% to 0.5%. But at the council’s following meeting, on Dec. 21, 2009, the council voted down the ordinance revision, with councilmembers citing art as key to Ann Arbor’s identity.

In connection with approval of the fiscal year 2012 budget in May 2011, Higgins brought forward a budget amendment that would have directed the city attorney to prepare an ordinance amendment to reduce the percentage in the public art ordinance from 1% to 0.5%. That attempted amendment failed on a 4-7 vote. Six months later, the council again gave initial approval to a reduction in the percentage allocated from 1% to 0.5%. But in its Dec. 5, 2011 vote, the council ultimately opted to make only a minor tweak to the ordinance, without changing the basic percentage.

If approved by voters, the public art funds from a millage would not necessarily be restricted to permanent “monumental” type art, as the current Percent for Art funds are. The additional flexibility afforded by a millage-based public art program might include the ability to fund performance art or support artist-in-residency programs. It would also enjoy the endorsement of a referendum, eliminating the criticism that residents had not voted on the question of the Percent for Art program.

During deliberations on May 7, 2012 about a piece of public art to be commissioned for the city’s new justice center, Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) mentioned the possibility of establishing a millage just for public art. Kunselman has been a vocal critic of the funding mechanism of the Percent for Art program, based on the idea that it is not legal to appropriate public utility funds or dedicated millage funds for other purposes to public art, as the city’s Percent for Art ordinance does. The council voted down a proposal by Kunselman on April 2, 2012 to request a legal opinion on the question from city attorney Stephen Postema.

However, the possible proposal on a public art millage on Aug. 9 is expected to come from Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), not Kunselman.

As of mid-afternoon on Aug. 9, no item on a public art millage had been added to the council’s online agenda. One possible approach councilmembers would take is to reveal the details of the proposal on Aug. 9, but not vote on placing the question on the November ballot until its next meeting, on Aug. 20. That would allow for some public discussion of placing the question on the ballot before deciding to do so, while still meeting the statutory deadline for delivering ballot language to the county clerk.

Update 7:12 p.m.: The council meeting opened with the revision of the agenda – at the request of Taylor – to include a resolution on a public art millage