Tax proposal raises some serious issues
Two longtime southeastern Michigan cultural museums have announced plans to reach out to Oakland and Wayne county residents for assistance – in the form of an operating millage proposal – to help them remain viable. If they succeed in placing the proposal on the ballot, they will be following in the footsteps of both the Detroit Zoo and the Detroit Institute of Arts, which both have sought, and successfully obtained, funding through millages taxing residents in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. It's a big ask that could set long-term precedent.
In January, the Detroit Historical Museum, along with the Charles E. Wright Museum, revealed plans to place a .4 mills operating millage for up to 20 years on the August ballot in Wayne and Oakland Counties. Museum officials have said the ability to raise money through an approved millage would help them stay afloat as the COVID-19 pandemic has cut their revenue. If approved, the tax would generate $22-24 million each year for the Wright Museum and $17 million for the Historical Museum.
Here is the overriding question: is it up to the region to support every cultural institution, and for how long? Will other requests from cultural groups follow in the coming years, given that all such endeavors feel the funding pinch, heightened even further by the covid pandemic.
The Detroit Zoo was the first to step into the regional funding arena, in 2008, when it requested a .1 mill property tax for 10 years, meaning a homeowner with a home worth $200,000 would pay $10 extra a year. It was approved by 75 percent of Oakland County voters, 73 percent voted yes in Wayne County and 66 percent in Macomb County. In 2016, 74 percent of Oakland County and 70 percent of Wayne County voters approved the renewal, while Macomb County voters approved it by 59 percent.
In 2012, the DIA followed suit, requesting a .2 mill property tax for 10 years, so that homeowners with a home assessed at $100,000 (a $200,000 home) would pay an extra $20 a year, asserting it was a “one-time only” request at the time, stating the museum would eventually be self-sufficient. Alas, the city of Detroit went bankrupt in 2013, the DIA had to come up with $100 million to give to the city as part of the “Grand Bargain” – and in 2018, they came back with a 10-year renewal. Both passed overwhelmingly in Oakland and Wayne counties, and just squeaked out a win in Macomb.
The Detroit Historical Museum was first founded over 100 years ago, in 1914, when historian and attorney Clarence Burton donated his collection of historical papers to the Detroit Public Library. Subsequently, in 1921, he and other local historians founded the Detroit Historical Society, dedicated to the preservation of the city's history. The society founded a permanent museum in the 1940s with $15,000. It continued to expand, raising nearly $4 million in 1994 for exhibits, educational programming and endowments, and in 2015, the museum launched a transformational long-term exhibit, Detroit 67:Perspectives, re-examining the 1967 riots in the city.
In 1949, the Detroit Historical Commission opened the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, dedicated to showcasing the story of the Great Lakes, with a special emphasis on Detroit’s role in regional and national maritime history, opened on Belle Isle. It is today part of the Detroit Historical Museum.
The Charles H. Wright Museum is a state-of-the-art museum which is a repository for African-American history and culture, a space for celebration and remembrance that would stimulate generations of visitors, a notable accomplishment and a source of inspiration in a city that is over 85 percent African American. Wright was motivated to build the museum after visiting Denmark and seeing monuments to World War II heroes. The museum opened in 1997 following the sale of construction bonds in 1992, and the 125,000 square foot building is home to more than 30,000 artifacts and archival materials, including a number of documents from Detroit’s labor movement.
While we applaud the growth and cultural diversity both institutions bring for generations of inquisitive minds, it is too early to say whether this proposed millage is one metro Detroiters, notably those living in Oakland County, should support. We are concerned about the length of time – up to 20 years – the millage is proposed for, and believe no millage should realistically last longer than 10 years before returning to voters.. This millage is also much larger than either the zoo or the art institute, at .4 mills – which is something homeowners will have to consider, and whether these are institutions they want to financially support. As we have all seen from the zoo and art institute, once an operating millage is initiated, renewals often continue into perpetuity.
At some point, residents who do not question the worthiness of the institutions may say it is up to the private sector, both wealthy benefactors and corporations, to lift up the torch to keep them open and well-funded.
There are also some serious financial questions about the Wright Museum that need to be answered before this goes on the ballot. We hear talk that the museum has $30 million in deferred maintenance that needs to be addressed and we have yet to hear whether the museum carries significant unfunded employee retirement benefits.
This issue is now before the state legislature. If it clears the hurdles there, then it will be up to the Oakland County Board of Commissioners to determine if it should go on the ballot. We are told the museums are shooting for an August vote, which is a nonstarter for us. This issue should go before the largest turnout of voters, which would be the November 2022 ballot, for a maximum of 10 years. Period. First, county commissioners must get some firm answers on the actual state of affairs of the finances and possible long-term debt of the museums before asking voters to ante up a millage.