August Primary: DIA Millage Proposal Raises Questions

Tri-county proposals spur debates over Detroit-suburbs ties, museum finances and property tax levels in the Aug. 7 primary.

Mary Cassatt, Vincent van Gogh and Diego Rivera are among candidates for local support in Metro Detroit's Aug. 7 primary elections. A millage request by the Detroit Institute of Arts – the museum displaying their art – will be on ballots in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties.

Each county's elected commissioners this spring approved language for a 0.2-mill proposal to support the DIA as a regional resource. In addition to nominating candidates for congressional, state, county and local offices on Primary Day, voters will be asked to answer that yes-or-no DIA tax question.

An impassioned debate has begun to intensify, as it always does when property taxes and city-suburban relations are involved. The political landscape also is shaped by economic uncertainty and some communities' tax proposals for parks and recreation, public safety and education. Other countywide requests Aug. 7 include a .59-mill renewal for Oakland's Public Transportation Authority and a .04-mill renewal for Macomb veterans' services.

Facts and views about the DIA millage are summarized here:

Ballot language

The three county boards of commissioners this year established separate Art Institute Authorities, allowed under a 2010 state law, to submit the August millage question and monitor the use of funds if it passes. The four-sentence ballot wording (see attached PDF file) asks for a yes or no vote on a tax "to continue providing art institute services to benefit the residents" of the voter's county. The phrases "Detroit Institute of Arts," "DIA" and "museum" aren't used.

Tax impact

A levy of 0.2 mills means 20 cents per each $1,000 of taxable value. Property owners would pay $10 for every $100,000 of taxable value shown on municipal tax statements.


The 10-year tax would begin with December 2012 property tax bills and end in 2021.

Money for DIA

Voters will see one of these estimates of 2012 revenue to be generated: Macomb, $4.9 million; Oakland, $9.8 million; Wayne, $8.3 million.
In exchange, residents and school groups from counties approving the millage can visit the DIA anytime without a general admission fee.

Museum governance

Detroit owns the DIA’s collection, building and grounds. It transferred museum management last decade to a nonprofit operating authority, governed by a board of directors from the tri-county area.

Reason for proposal

"The DIA does not receive any funds from the state, city or county," the campaign's FAQ page states. "Elimination of all public funding for operations has required the museum to turn almost entirely to the private sector, an operating model that is not sustainable, particularly in the current economy."

Additional operating revenue for a decade is needed to avoid reducing the current DIA public access of 36 hours over five days each week, executives say. "An operating endowment of $72 million provides funding for approximately 20 percent of annual operations," millage campaign spokesman Bob Berg tells Patch.

Passage by all three counties, according to the online statement, "will allow an expansion of operating days and hours to better accommodate public and school groups. ... The museum's ultimate goal is to become financially self-sustaining ... [through] fundraising [that will] focus on building an operating endowment."

Impact of rejection

"The urgency of the situation requires success in all three counties for operational stability," the official statement says. "A DIA without millage support [in all three counties] will not be the DIA we know today."

The media handout suggests the possibility of "a severe reduction of museum services and programs," perhaps including the end of school tours and "opening selected galleries only on weekends." In , DIA director Graham Beal concludes: "The millage will help ensure that the DIA is around for future generations to enjoy."

The museum's TV ad campaign began June 26, as reported by Crain's Detroit Business. A half-minute commercial (attached to this report) uses the tagline "Art is for everyone –it's what we save for our kids." As museum scenes are shown, a narrator says: "Imagine this: special exhibits, school field trips, art workshops – gone. The Detroit Institute of Arts is at risk of closing its doors. But we can save it by passing a low-cost millage."

Those scenarios and emotional language are crafted as part of a campaign that also includes a website, Facebook page and high-caliber consultants from the Dewey Square Group, a national political advisory firm with a Grosse Pointe office, and Berg Muirhead and Associates, a Detroit public relations agency.

Each side's arguments

Ballot proposal wording

  • Critics say: Omitting Detroit or DIA from the proposal’s wording is misleading.
  • Backers say: County election officials drafted the ballot language, which complies with the 2010 state law authorizing county Art Institute Authorities.

August vs. November vote

  • Critics say: A November vote would bring wider voter participation.
  • Director says: "While there are fewer major candidates and issues on the August ballot, there is still sufficient voter interest," DIA Director Beal said in his reply to . "The smaller ballot allows issues-based campaigns the ability to fully make their case to voters. Less 'noise' around the presidential election allows the DIA to communicate more effectively and cost-efficiently."

Admission fees

  • Critics say: Charging visitors more would be fairer than a regional tax affecting nonusers.
  • Backers say: Admission fees of $4-$8, depending on age, provide 3 percent of DIA revenues. Closing the operating fund gap that way would make the museum far too costly for many people to visit. "The existence of the DIA benefits every resident in Michigan, especially school children in the tri-county area," the campaign site says. "A cultural resource like the DIA is ... necessary for a healthy, vibrant society and is crucial in attracting businesses to the tri-county area."


  • Critics say: Suburban taxpayers shouldn’t bail out a mismanaged museum that spent $158 million on remodeling from 2001-07.
  • Backers say: "The DIA's financial situation is not due to poor management, but is a result of several factors – mainly the loss of state and city support and the recession that has made fundraising much more difficult," Beal says in his Patch letter. "The DIA has been and continues to be fiscally responsible. In addition to balancing the budget every year, the museum's financials are subjected to annual outside audits and consistently receive the highest rating."
    Spokesman Berg, a former Detroit mayoral press secretary, told Patch: "Renovations that were carried out at the DIA were badly needed, carefully planned and implemented with a goal of assuring a modern facility that will continue to serve this region for many generations." The project cut operating costs, he said in an email response, by adding "advances in building design and mechanical facilities that have occurred in the 80 years since the DIA was first opened."

Sell the art collection

  • Critics say: The DIA has millions of dollars worth of stored art that could be sold.
  • Backers say: "We are not in the business of selling art. We hold art to be viewed by this generation and the next," DIA Chief Operating Officer Annmarie Erickson said via Twitter in May. More recently, spokesman Berg told Patch: "One of the fundamental accepted practices of major art museums worldwide as that art work cannot be sold off to cover operating expenses. Any attempt to sell art would immediately undermine the DIA's position in the art world and render it unable to cooperate with other museums in putting together exhibits such as the Rembrandt exhibit. The region would lose its standing as home to one of the world’s great museums."

Who controls the money?

  • Critics say: Counties won't control how local tax money is used.
  • Director says: "The art authorities in each county, whose members are appointed by the commissioners and county executives, will ensure the DIA is using millage revenue only for museum operations," Beal noted at Rochester Patch. "And the DIA is required to submit an annual audit."

Voters' voices

Following are comments from residents around the three counties:

  • Rochester, pro-millage: "What is Michigan and the tri-county area willing to risk in lost jobs, tourism revenue and the like if we begin to lose our cultural institutions like the DIA? ... No one will want to relocate to Metro Detroit or raise a family here without cultural attractions." – , 41
  • White Lake, anti-millage: "The language on the ballot for the DIA millage request does not mention that it is for the Detroit Institute of Arts. If you don't pay attention to newspapers, you're likely to think [it] was for a facility or facilities in Oakland County. ... We cannot pick up the tab for bad management of all of the Detroit facilities." – , 56, Lakes Area Tea Party member
  • Macomb Township, pro-millage: "The region should be willing to support several institutions that ... benefit the Detroit-Metro area. The Detroit Zoo and the DIA are two locations that need to be first-class to benefit the education and enjoyment of our children and depict us as an area that cares about our social environment." – , 57
  • Rochester, anti-millage: "This should have been placed on the November ballot when more residents will vote. Oakland County should not pick up the tab for the bad management of facilities owned by other governmental units." – , 68, past Republican member of Oakland County Commission
  • Livonia, pro-millage: "It would be a very significant loss if they would have to downsize their operation, restrict their hours." – Mayor Jack Kirksey, quoted by Livonia Observer
  • Rochester Hills, anti-millage: "It is important that organizations such as the DIA, Detroit Science Center, etc. are run with fiscal responsibility. ... As much as I am a strong proponent for the arts, this is a bad ballot proposal and I will be voting no." – , 52
  • Sterling Heights, pro-millage: “The DIA is not only an important educational and cultural center for Detroit, but for all southeast Michigan.” – David Flynn, Macomb County commissioner, quoted by The Romeo Observer
  • Macomb Township, anti-millage: “If the DIA is unable to sustain itself through means other than taxation, it is time to replace those in charge with others who can manage current resources and go out and seek sponsors, donors, contributors to cover expenses.” – , 85

Grosse Pointe

Shelby Township July 27, 2012 at 03:29 AM
You are welcome.
Katie July 27, 2012 at 12:03 PM
"The DIA never seriously invested in building its endowment until the late 1990s". Wow. Not to dwell on the past, because nothing can be done about it now, but that is almost unbelievable and seriously depressing. Getting rather tired of bailing out poor leadership.
BIll Champion July 27, 2012 at 12:49 PM
Katie, keep in mind that until the late 90's the DIA was managed by the City of Detroit and its employees were unionized City employees. The Founder's Society took over management in 1997 or 1998. Graham Beale didn't arrive until 1999.
Katie July 27, 2012 at 02:13 PM
Bill, Thanks. I didn't realize the City had control that long. Big surprise. Everything they touch turns to (@#$%. Now if we could get control of Belle Isle.
Mr.Q July 28, 2012 at 04:05 PM
Though I'm late to the conversation here, I'd like to say that I fully support the mil for the DIA. It's considered one of the best art institutes in the country (and was -- and possibly still is -- the fifth largest museum in the country, with a well respected collection). Having said that, it appears to me that the ballot language is open for interpretation on where the money goes and how much of it. Might we see other longtime established arts organizations receiving funding? And, how many people in the tri-county area have homes that have value at $100k? It would be a small amount of dollars for most residents, and certainly more beneficial to those people.


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