New poll finds 69% of voters back millage for Detroit Institute of Arts

Posted on August 1, 2012

A property tax millage that could raise as much as $23 million each year in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties for the Detroit Institute of Arts has the support of 7 out of 10 likely voters in Tuesday’s primary, according to a poll released exclusively to the Free Press.

The poll, which surveyed 237 adults in the three counties, found that 69% plan to vote for the millage and 2% are leaning toward voting yes, while 25% plan to vote no and 4% are undecided. The strongest support was in Wayne and Oakland counties.

The poll, conducted by EPIC-MRA of Lansing, has a margin of error of plus or minus 6.4 percentage points.

The DIA is seeking a property tax of 0.2 mill for 10 years, the equivalent of $20 a year on a home with a market value of $200,000 and a taxable value of $100,000 in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

Museum leaders say the millage will help plug annual operating gaps of about $15 million created by the elimination of state funding — from $16 million in 1990 to zero this year.

The museum, whose annual budget is $25 million, has struggled financially for decades, hampered by the lack of a large operating endowment or public funding that sustain peer museums in Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago and elsewhere.

The DIA has promised free admission for residents of the counties that approve the tax, as well as extended hours and additional education and community programs. EPIC-MRA president Bernie Porn said the pro-DIA results suggested that voters may be willing to trade a small tax for free admission.

The poll question pointed out the free admission in counties that pass the millage. That language is not on ballots in the three counties and may have boosted support, Porn said.

The poll showed about 75% approval in Wayne and Oakland counties and 60% in Macomb. Because of the relatively low number of respondents, Macomb’s results are within the margin of error.

Leon Drolet, chairman of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, which opposes the tax, said that if the measure passes, he would feel especially bad for those who voted against it.

“The no voters, whether they’re a small percent or large, are people who may need that money to send their kids to college, make a car payment or pay other property taxes,” he said. “They’re not voting no because they don’t like art. They’re voting no because they need their money for reasons more important to their lives.”

DIA officials conducted their own poll two weeks ago that showed a majority of voters supporting the millage. Museum Executive Vice President Annmarie Erickson declined to release details, but said the level of support was less than in the EPIC-MRA poll. She said the museum remained intensely focused on turning out the vote.

“We are phone banking every night,” she said. “We saved resources so our media buys could be heavier this week. We’re making literature drops in high turnout areas. It’s really a full-court volunteer press.”

The DIA is spending $2.5 million on the campaign. About $1.5 million was set aside in recent years to fund the effort and $1 million was raised from donors for the campaign.

There has been little organized opposition. Drolet said his organization was spending less than $15,000 on 100,000 automated phone calls critical of the museum’s spending, pointing out that director Graham Beal is paid about $450,000 per year.

Beal’s compensation totaled $443,000 in 2010, according to DIA tax forms. That ranks near the bottom compared with directors at peer museums.

DIA leaders say the tax would allow the museum to turn its fund-raising machinery to shoring up its operating endowment — an investment nest egg that generates income to feed the bottom line.

The DIA’s current operating endowment is about $100 million, low compared with the $368-million endowment at the Cleveland Museum of Art or the $651-million endowment or the Art Institute of Chicago.

State Rep. Tom McMillin, a Republican from Rochester Hills, has been the most vocal critic of the DIA. A certified public accountant, he has accused the museum of lying in television ads that suggest it might be forced to close without the millage. He points to DIA financial statements that show an increase in net assets of $50 million in the last two years.

“This is not an organization that’s doing all that badly,” McMillin said. “This millage does not have to pass to save the DIA.”

DIA officials counter that although it’s true that net assets have increased, not all of the $50 million McMillin cites was available to pay bills. Chief Financial Officer Rob Bowen said the figure includes $10 million allocated by the state for building repairs and $4 million because of on-paper reduction of long-term liabilities.

The large returns the last two years also came in the wake of post-recession stock market gains that were unlikely to continue.

“No responsible business owner would look at investment assets and count on those kinds of returns year after year,” said Erickson. “This institution remains in a tenuous financial position.”

She said a short-term solution is “not the solution to building a stable model for the future.”

By: Mark Stryker, Detroit Free Press