It’s hard to make decisions, it seems, in Municipal offices. Does a town spend on aesthetics and town beautification or essential services like waste collection, roads and bridges? It’s especially hard to decide between such alternatives in hard economic times when your constituents are struggling to make ends meet, unemployment is high and taxpayers are watching every dime. Wolfville struggles with such choices we know.
Ann Arbor, Michigan had some hard decisions to make. How did they manage?
The debate in Ann Arbor, where firefighters are being laid off due to a multimillion dollar budget deficit, is over an $850,000 piece of art.
That’s how much the city has agreed to pay German artist Herbert Dreiseitl for a three-piece water sculpture that would go in front of the new police and courts building right by the City Hall.
They could afford such an expense because not only did they lay off those fire fighters, they also eliminated a solid waste coordinator from the budget. But they had to hire an art coordinator. To look after the art. The City Administrator wasn’t worried.
City Administrator Roger Fraser wrote in an e-mail that the solid waste coordinator position was eliminated as a cost-cutting measure because the solid waste millage had decreased. Fraser wrote that the art coordinator position would be paid for by the public art fund.
Fraser noted that the public art dollars did not come from the city’s general fund, which is used to pay salaries and benefits, and that less than $6,000 of the art money came from the general fund.
The art projects also must have a “thematic connection” to the source of funding, Fraser wrote. The $850,000 art project is water-themed, because the money came from storm water funds.
Those CAOs sure know their stuff don’t they? But strangely residents seem unhappy with the municipality’s choices. They say things like this:
… critics say that a city creative enough to fund art from storm water projects should be able to find money to cover essential city services.
“That’s the classic argument,” said Glenn Thompson, an Ann Arbor resident and longtime critic of city spending. “But the city has become very, very good at shuffling money in and out of the general fund when they want. These people are very good at putting it in and out of the general fund when they wish.”
Michael LaFaive, the director of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative said nonessential services are being funded throughout the state.
“Administrators cry poverty while lavishing money on the beautiful people,” LaFaive said. “The threat to dismiss firefighters often comes while officials protect golf courses, wave pools and art. No city can cry poverty while it defends recreation and aesthetics such as art.”
LaFaive said administrators get creative with budgets to fund pet projects.
“It doesn’t mean officials can’t find ways to redirect the money,” LaFaive said. “It appears on the surface that they are redefining what a capital improvement is, by designing a sculpture instead of true municipal infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges.” [emph ours]
We expect these critics are not considered “Town Builders” by City Hall. Perhaps the Ann Arbor administration should hire a consultant to help them communicate better with these critics. There’s probably a reserve fund somewhere for that.