Proposed Revisions to Public Art Law Postponed

Two separate proposals about Ann Arbor’s Percent for Art program were tabled by the city council at its Nov. 19, 2012 meeting. One proposal would have terminated the program, while the other would have narrowed the range of eligible projects.

The council also postponed a resolution added to the agenda during the meeting to appoint a task force of five councilmembers to study the issue and to suspend the expenditure of funds – with several exceptions – currently allocated for public art. The resolution on the task force and temporary suspension, which was brought forward by Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), was postponed until Dec. 3. The timeframe for a recommendation on how to move ahead with either revision or termination of the Percent for Art ordinance would be April 2013.

The legislative activity came after voters failed to approve a public art millage on Nov. 6.

The city’s Percent for Art ordinance currently requires that 1% of the budget for all capital projects undertaken in the city be set aside for public art – up to a limit of $250,000 per project. The revisions would have focused on the definition of projects to which the ordinance applies and would have added requirements for public participation. The practical effect of the narrowing of project eligibility is estimated to reduce the amount of public art funding by about 90%. For the last two fiscal years, the Percent for Art program has generated roughly $300,000. If the ordinance revisions had been in place, only about $25,000 would have been generated. [.jpg of chart showing public art allocations]

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) interpreted results from the failed public art millage on Nov. 6 as an indication that voters wanted the existing, non-millage-based program eliminated. The millage failed by a 10-point margin (55.8% opposed and 44.14% in favor). Lumm had described her intent at the council’s Nov. 8 meeting to bring forward a proposal similar to one she’d made at the council’s Aug. 20, 2012 meeting – a resolution that directed the city attorney’s office to prepare an ordinance revision that would repeal the Percent for Art program. In an email sent to other councilmembers, Lumm stated that ”… the version I will bring forward on 11/19 will be the proposed ordinance changes themselves for consideration at first reading.” The Aug. 20 meeting was the occasion on which the council voted to place a public art millage on the Nov. 6 ballot. It was meant to provide a more flexible funding mechanism for public art in Ann Arbor. The 0.1 mill tax was expected to generate around $450,000 annually.

The proposal to modify the ordinance – also tabled by the council – was sponsored by Sabra Briere (Ward 1). In the past, Briere has proposed revisions based on restricting the funds from which public art projects could draw. But her current approach has been to narrow the definition of projects to which the existing ordinance would apply. Currently, the Percent for Art ordinance applies to essentially any capital improvement project undertaken by the city. Briere’s proposal would narrow the definition by restricting eligible capital improvement projects to those that are “intended to be open or visible to the public.” Projects to construct roads, highways, paths, and sidewalks would be eliminated from eligibility. Bridges would still qualify.

Of the roughly $300,000 that have been allocated to public art through the Percent for Art program in each of the last two fiscal years, about 90% of it has been generated through projects that have been paid for partly out of the street millage fund and the sanitary sewer fund. The two-year total attributable to the street millage fund is about $250,000. For the sanitary sewer fund, the two-year amount is about $180,000. Given the narrowing of the eligible project scope in Briere’s ordinance revision, that money would not have been allocated to public art under Briere’s ordinance amendments.

Briere’s proposal included a financial threshold for qualifying projects: $100,000. Her proposed ordinance amendments would also require a public process associated with proposed art projects. Part of that process would require notification of the councilmembers in whose ward a project is proposed.

The public art millage won a majority of votes in just 13 out of 59 Ann Arbor precincts, with the most support coming from Ward 5, Precinct 4 where 60.5% of voters supported the public art millage. Ward 5 had six of the 13 precincts where the proposal achieved a majority. And the proposal finished in a dead heat in Ward 5, Precinct 5 with 471 voting for and against it. Opposition among in-person voters was strongest in Ward 1, Precinct 9, where only 34.5% of voters supported it.

The proposal did not win a majority of votes in any precinct of Ward 2, which is represented by Lumm. Differing interpretations of the expressed voter sentiment that were part of the council’s deliberations on Nov. 19 included the idea that voters were saying something about: (1) the way public art is funded, or (2) whether public money should be used to support public art at all.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link]