Public Art Millage Mooted, Postponed

A resolution that would place a question on the Nov. 6 ballot, asking Ann Arbor voters to pay a 0.1 mill tax for four years to support public art was added to the city council’s Aug. 9 meeting at the very start of the session. When considered later in the meeting, the resolution was postponed until the council’s Aug. 20 meeting.

The strategy pursued by the resolution’s sponsor, Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), was to reveal the details of the proposal on Aug. 9, but to seek its immediate postponement. Voting on Aug. 20 to place the question on the ballot would allow for some public discussion before taking action on that issue, while still meeting the statutory deadline for delivering ballot language to the Washtenaw County clerk.

The fact that the proposal was being actively discussed and would be coming before the council was not known to many councilmembers or council watchers until mid-day on Aug. 9, the same day as the meeting. It’s expected that the public art commission will have a chance to meet before the city council decision, to provide feedback to the council. To do that, the commission would need to call a special meeting – its next regular meeting is scheduled for Aug. 22.

The ballot question would read: “Shall the Charter be amended to limit sources of funding for public art and to authorize a new tax of up to one-tenth (0.10) of a mill for 2013 through 2016 to fund public art, which 0.10 mill will raise in the first year of levy the estimated revenue of $459,273?”

The public art millage would replace the city’s current Percent for Art program, which was approved by the council in 2007, but has been controversial. The 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. Marsha Chamberlin, chair of Ann Arbor’s public art commission, told The Chronicle in a phone interview on Aug. 9 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.

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 came 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. When Taylor led off the meeting with the change to the agenda, it was met with some grumbles from Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) and Jane Lumm (Ward 2), because of the late change – which caught most councilmembers off guard. But councilmembers were generally enthusiastic about the proposal’s content.

For a full report of council’s deliberations, see Chronicle coverage: “Ballot Questions: Parks, Public Art Funding.”