Taxes for Art (III)

Artist’s interpretation (partial) of Dreiseitl sculpture from city press release

Could Percent for Art endanger renewal of the streets millage?

At long last, the Dreiseitl water sculpture at the heart of Ann Arbor’s Percent for Art program will be unveiled. As announced in a press release from AAPAC (the city’s art commission), there will be a celebration of the “lighting and completion” of the work at 7 p.m. on October 4, 2011, at the Municipal Center (what used to be Ann Arbor’s City Hall).

We can only hope that the sculpture is as awe-inspiring and soul-refreshing as its proponents have believed it will be.  It has, unfortunately, been the symbol of a much resented program and because of the water feature has sometimes been called the “urinal”, while its priapic configuration has prompted even more ribald comparisons.

Meanwhile, two other aspects of the project have provoked public outrage, as expressed in numerous comments to online media.   One is that the artist is from Germany and decidedly not local.  If a purpose of a public art program is to support local artists, as we have suggested and many seem to believe, this did not succeed.  The other is the cost.  According to the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the cost of the project, including design work, is $814,820, and that does not include all site work, seating, and other incidentals. The idea of spending nearly a million dollars on a water sculpture at a time when the city is laying off police officers, has scandalized many members of the public.  The Mayor and other supporters of the program have repeatedly pointed out that the money is not coming from the General Fund (which pays for police services), but this has not appeased critics.  (Most of the money instead comes from restricted funds like the street millage and utilities, which we believe to be illegal.)

As we stated at the beginning of this series, there are three problems with the Percent for Art program.

1. It is almost certainly  illegal.

2. It is based on a false premise.

3. It erodes the public trust in government.

Public trust in government is earned when the public perceives that government cares about their own (the public’s) concerns, and when government is seen to be making decisions that are fair and lawful.  Although we may often disagree with a particular decision or even the existence of a particular program, this does not automatically cause disillusionment.  But when we see government that seems oblivious to clear needs while spending money on “pet projects”,  the faith that government can be trusted to use our tax dollars wisely is lost.  That is what has happened with the Percent for Art program, and it may have real consequences in the near term.

To my knowledge, there are no actual polls to test the general acceptance by Ann Arbor voters of the Percent for Art program, and it definitely has its supporters who will turn out at City Council whenever the program seems to be threatened.  As recently reported, this happened recently when CM Sabra Briere introduced a proposed change to the Percent for Art ordinance that would have placed some minor restrictions on the fund, and also excluded the upcoming street millage from being taxed for it.  Most speakers spoke at the symbolic level that we previously described:  “we’ve chosen to live in a city that has a pulse and a soul”.  (A commenter online responded to this with “Earth to speaker. We need to come back down to the real world and current needs of this city.”)

To the extent that online polls (unscientific) and anonymous online commenters can be accepted as a valid test of the public sentiment, the Percent for Art program is scorned by the public.  In a recent poll 74% said they were not interested in seeing more public art.  (Only 8% said the program was working well as it stands and 18% would like to see more.)  There are many sources of this dissatisfaction but the loss of services, especially police protection, seem to be the main one.  Comments from a story about the program include these:

I look forward to reflecting on Ann Arbor’s wonderful art while getting my car repaired after driving over the broken, pot-holed Stadium Bridge. I’ll also make sure to print a map to prominent local works of art on the back of flyers warning people of the sexual predator(s) loose in Ann Arbor.
I suggest even arts proponents would choose to fund public safety over art. Especially if their house was on fire or they needed to call the police.
We have quit salting our roads and fixing our roads because we can’t afford it. We are laying off police and fire fighters because we can’t afford it. We have quit the annual Xmas tree pickup because we can’t afford it. We raise water rates because we can’t afford not to. What makes this Council think that in the face of all of that we can afford the folly of Public Art?

But a few days later, Percent for Art once again emerged as a source of dissatisfaction in a story about aggressive panhandling downtown.  (The art program was not addressed in the story.)  Sample comments:

It’s… a bunch of bunk that city council claims their hands are tied *has* to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on public art, but can’t find a way to properly staff the police and firefighters departments.
“The problem is, unless the city finds money someplace, they don’t have the resources to put street cops back on the street. That handled a lot of problems in the past.” But the city wants to spend $500,000 on art. Hmm??
Until we put in place a team that will truly lead our city, addressing the proper and important issues first, we will continue to see this slide in our standard of living. Nothing has caused our city leaders to change their practice of wasteful spending and buying art. This is all that matters to them.
We have money to … adorn the new city hall with the finest European art…Ann Arbor has many more resources than most Michigan communities – our leadership simply does not care to deploy the resources in a way that the voters want. First we fund folly, then there’s no money left for what would normally be considered basic city services.
All I can think is that Ann Arbor is getting exactly what it deserves. Enjoy your new taxpayer funded $750,000 German designed public urinal.
Have the City’s new Art Director re-lable (sic) panhandlers as “performance art.”
The “bucket” for police should always be filled. A “bucket” for public art should not be overflowing. Tax money is the pooling that businesses do for “security” (police) Geez, cut the 1% for art program thing. If 1% is where it is at make it 1% goes towards public safety instead, maybe that additional 1% will make the difference up so we can get some of our police officers and firefighters back.

We could go on.  And on.  Of 207 comments (as of two days after the story was published), 22 directly addressed the art program either as a cause of the insecurity downtown or as a symptom of missed priorities.  (This does not include replies to former CM Joan Lowenstein, who bravely defended public art as a likely deterrent to panhandling.)  And the subject of the story had nothing to do with the public art program.

The Street Millage

On August 4, 2011, Ann Arbor’s City Council passed a resolution placing a renewal of the street millage on the ballot.  But then they passed an additional resolution that placed on the ballot a renewal of the street millage plus a millage to repair sidewalks.  Thus, Proposal 1  would approve the renewal of the  present millage of 2.0 mills.

Proposal 2 is to renew the street millage (which has been renamed to the “Street and Bridge” millage) plus an additional 0.125 mills to repair sidewalks.

Just to make this as confusing as possible, Proposal 2 can only pass if Proposal 1 also passes.    If you favor the street millage but not the sidewalk millage, you may vote for Proposal 1 and not Proposal 2.  But if you (and the majority of voters) vote for Proposal 2 and not Proposal 1, neither will pass.

On September 19, 2011, CM Briere introduced her proposed modification to the Percent for Art ordinance that would have barred the use of either of these millages for the Percent for Art program, in other words, barred the assignment of 1% of the millage proceeds to the art fund.

After much discussion (see the Chronicle’s account of the blow-by-blow), the Council voted to postpone the vote on the ordinance change until November 21 – several weeks after the election at which voters must decide to re-authorize the millage.

There seems to be a certain political tone-deafness here, comparable to that of AAPAC itself.  Do they really think that the public can embrace the idea of taking money away from roads without revolt?  At various times that the allocation was under threat, it has been stressed by supporters that it would “only” take money from roads and sewers. As quoted by the Chronicle,

Commissioner Cheryl Zuellig asked what the half percent would be used for, if it’s not going into the Percent for Art program. If that money is going back into the capital improvement projects, Zuellig said, “it’s saying we can build 100 more feet of road.”

“Or three inches,” Parker quipped.

This “pennies on the dollar” attitude seems to be the equivalent of our being told that we could support our favorite charity just by giving up a latte weekly. But in fact we are talking about real money and real needs.  As we noted earlier, to date Percent for Art has received over $400,000 from the street millage.  If the total amount (which seems evident from interpretation that seems to have been promulgated) of the proposed street millage is allocated to Percent for Art,  it will be 1% of $46 million plus about $2.8 million for the sidewalk piece, or roughly $490,000 over 5 years – nearly half a million from only this millage.  (Note: there are complications with the calculations for the sidewalk expenditures that we won’t get into here.)

Street conditions are a vexed issue in any event.  Who among us has not complained while navigating the potholes on a particular road?  (See the hilarious take by the Newshawks, near the end of their most recent piece, where they suggest audible potholes of your design, and the Pure Michigan spool on potholes.) Michigan has a strange system for road upkeep that is perennially underfunded.  For that reason, most Ann Arbor citizens have been voting without much complaint for the renewal of street millages for decades.  The current form of millage was first passed in 1988, then 1991, 1996, 2001 and again in 2006.  I recall voting for that 1988 millage (soon after arriving here)  and sighing with relief as some of the worst cases received attention.  It has never occurred to me to do anything but vote for renewal, and I’m sure that many other longtime citizens have had a similar response.

But there are stirrings of real dissatisfaction.  The deteriorated state of the Stadium Bridge has been a sore point for years.  (It is finally being addressed: see the new city website.) Fair or not, our council has often been blamed for the terrible state of many of our local roads, and there have been persistent rumors that the city is simply sitting on huge piles of cash instead of spending them on roads.  This appears not to be justified: see the full accounting of how the street millage has been spent (thanks to CM Sabra Briere for causing this summary to be made and sharing it).  Still, with programs like Percent for Art and the Fuller Road Station drawing money away from real street repair, complaints have been mounting up.  Just as a crowning blow, part of the city funds allocated to the Stadium Bridge reconstruction will be spent on public art.

The election this November can be expected to be a relatively low turnout, since it is an “off-year”, without a lot of races for higher offices.  We do have contested races for Council in four of five wards, but the only other thing on the ballot is the road millage.  The two proposals are themselves confusing.  Can Council count on the continued compliance of the citizens?  The answer to that question lies in whether the voters of Ann Arbor still trust their government to use the extra taxes properly, and whether the question itself is enough to draw willing voters to the polls.

UPDATE: Ryan Stanton reports in that Aaron Seagraves, the city’s public art administrator, released some figures regarding the effect of CM Briere’s proposed ordinance amendment on the  funds available to the public art program. According to the story, ” money from the street millage represents about 55 percent of new revenue for public art in the last two years. Nearly $120,000 in street millage funds were channeled to the pooled public art fund in 2010-11, and that’s up to nearly $134,000 in this year’s budget. The report shows more than $555,000 in street millage dollars remain waiting to be spent on public art.”

SECOND UPDATE: There is a wide-ranging discussion about public art and its meaning and what “public support” means through comments on the Chronicle’s article.

THIRD UPDATE: The city has a webpage with full information about the streets millage.

FOURTH UPDATE: Now that the artwork has been installed, another poll was mostly negative.  Though the poll question was about the quality of the artwork, most comments appear to be based on unhappiness with the funding program.

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11 Comments on “Taxes for Art (III)”

  1. David Cahill Says:

    This is an excellent article, Vivienne! Well done!

  2. Julie Roth Says:

    Surely you realize that the posters at are decidedly more right-wing, Conservative, every-man-for-himself, trickle-down theory nonsense than the population of Ann Arbor, correct? I would like to see a count of how many posters actually LIVE in Ann Arbor. Almost everyone I know and respect has completely stopped posting there and reading comments because it’s so obviously taken over by people who clearly do not represent any sort of majority in this town. All this I say just to point out that ANY sentiment taken from polls or comments must be viewed from that vantage point.

    • varmentrout Says:

      Yes, I agree that anonymous comments on are not a valid sample of the Ann Arbor population. I don’t know who most of them are or where they live. They often show a reflexive nastiness that I find very discomforting. Yet they do represent a group response and reflect some sort of tenor of the times.

      As a side comment, I wonder how one could get a valid representation of the public view on any subject? Most online polls are self-selected (and questions often poorly constructed), we don’t know the opinion of people who don’t vote in elections, and I think traditional polls by telephone must be getting very difficult to perform, given the diversity of telephone systems now.

      Today’s story about the Dreiseitl installation was over 260 comments last I checked. This subject has hit a chord exceeded only by the crosswalk ordinance and has surpassed Hummer assassinations of ducklings. I’m not sure what this actually means.

      • Julie Roth Says:

        Yeah, I know it must be difficult to get a valid scientific poll these days. But it would be tragic if the fact that it was difficult led to default use of responses just because it’s easiest.

        This is the same group that gets all excited when a chain restaurant comes to town, and pans Ann Arbor with a giant swoop — seems to dislike or downright hate most everything to do with this town. As I said, I seriously question the residency of these folks, and would hate to see people who quite likely don’t live here frame the discussions.

        I think it was pretty easy to predict the response that would take place to that article. I would have been surprised if it had been anything different. And it’s so hostile that any dissenting opinions are likely not posted. Having said all that, my opinion about this piece is being held until it’s completion. I was hoping for something much more inspired given all I saw on the artist’s website, but again, I’ll refrain from judgement until I see it in person.

    • Andy Says:

      Glad I’m not the only one with these suspicions! I’ve written at great length about how completely the .Com’s threads have been hijacked by right-wing conspiracy theorists. Puzzling & paradoxical.

  3. varmentrout Says:

    I tried to say (and was probably too academic and restrained in this) that I acknowledged that the comments and poll were not a perfect source of data. Still, if only by default, it is all we have.

    I too hope that the actual artwork is a fine piece of work, and I intend to go to the opening with an open mind and hope for a good outcome.

  4. Ashok Gopalakrishnan Says:

    Thanks for the articles Vivienne, on the Percent for Art program. I tend to agree with you on its illegality. All the A2 city council has to do is to frame the Percent for Art ordinance as a question, and put it on the ballot. Whether it is voted up or down, the matter can be settled outright.

    Regarding the street millage fund, Ms. Briere’s expenditure summary that you linked to shows that the fund will start out with a $29 million opening balance in fiscal year 2012. Add to that the $13 million from the TIGERII grant, which looks like it has finally been obligated by USDOT, and it is very clear to me that council needs to spend the money in a responsible manner, and show some results, before asking citizens to extend the millage. We almost lost out on the TIGERII grant due to A2 not being shovel-ready. Thank goodness Congress decided to reinstate it in the budget, after initially axing it.

    Lastly, it might be true that most of the commentators on are not A2 residents. However, in speaking with my neighbors, friends and acquaintances (all A2 residents), I can readily sense dissatisfaction with our city council. I mean, not in the “tea-party”, “extreme right-wing” sense, but definitely in terms of “what exactly are council’s priorities for its citizens?”. I think this dissatisfaction is reflected in the number of opposing candidates in this year’s elections. What will happen on voting day is of course not clear.


    • varmentrout Says:

      I’m glad that you found the information useful, and that you liked my articles. I’m also happy to hear that other residents are following these issues closely. I didn’t know that we almost lost the TIGER II money.

  5. David Cahill Says:

    While *responses* have a high junk content, its *polls* are a different story. They have been reasonably accurate in predicting electoral outcomes in the recent past. Typical polls now have hundreds of participants, meaning that there is no organized group that is able to influence the outcome.

    These polls are classic “opt-in” polls of participators in local affairs. Let’s face it: if you don’t read, your chances of voting in low-turnout local elections like the one here in November are rather slim.

  6. […] In 2011, I wrote a three-part series on the Percent for Art program.  (Part I Part II Part III) […]

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