Dearborn Joins Lawsuit for Right to Keep Tax Money Earmarked for Zoo, DIA

Dearborn is one of nine cities asking a judge to decide a dispute they have with the Wayne County treasurer.

Now that voters have passed special millages for the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Zoo, all Dearborn residents must pay the tax. 

However, money collected from areas within the city's Downtown Development Authority districts never gets to the DIA or the zoo. Instead, it’s kept locally to help fund the DDAs.

Leaders of nine communities have banded together to file a lawsuit in Wayne County Circuit Court, asking a judge to decide whether the practice is legal. The communities include Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Wyandotte, Northville, Plymouth Township, Romulus, Taylor, Belleville and Van Buren Township. 

The lawsuit was filed this month against Wayne County Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz and the two taxing authorities set up to oversee the DIA and Zoo millages.

Wojtowicz said he’s convinced his interpretation is the correct one.

"I remain convinced the voice of the voters should be heard and these taxes should benefit the zoo and the art institute,” he said in a written statement.

Dearborn Mayor Jack O'Reilly told the Detroit Free Press that the idea isn't to sue for penalties.

"We're asking for a court to determine what the law says," he said.

But the state has already said that the cities are wrong.

Different Interpretations of Tax Law

According to state law, communities are permitted to establish specific development districts within their city limits. In Dearborn's case, there are two downtown development authorities—east and west. Increases in taxes for properties within those specific districts are captured by those districts to use locally.

According to the cities involved in the lawsuit, since the DIA millage and zoo millage weren’t in place when those development districts were originally formed, any money collected for those millages — or any millage in the future — can legally be kept locally.

Wayne County and the state disagree.

According to the zoo, both former Attorney General Mike Cox and current AG Bill Schuette informed the cities that they needed to stop keeping the funds.

The zoo millage rate is .1, while the DIA millage rate is .2. From Dearborn taxpayers, that would amount to around $340,000 and $680,000 in annual taxes, respectively. However, not all of that has made it to the zoo.

The Detroit Zoo reported in a position paper that the tax captures from "about a dozen" DDAs in Wayne County that would have gone to the zoo have totaled more than $750,000 since 2008.

Patricia Mills Janeway, communications director at the Detroit Zoo, said officials there have consulted with their legal counsel as well.

"We’re in ongoing dialogue with the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office, the State Attorney General and our legal counsel, and have been pushing hard to get the DDAs to follow the legal opinions of the AG and others. Most are in compliance," she said in a previous interview with Patch.

What Happens Next?

While voters in Oakland and Macomb counties also approved the zoo millage, only a handful of Wayne County communities have opted to hold onto a portion of the tax.

It isn't clear what would happen to the funds if the court rules against the cities' interpretation. Westland stopped collecting the funds, and Trenton officials already opted to return the money.

The zoo has requested that the money be returned.

The position paper from the zoo asserts that "the vast majority of voters who we've heard from have expressed embarrassment that some of their communities have taken the funds."

The paper urged residents to call on their cities to return the money.

What do you think, Dearborn? Should your taxes go to the zoo and the DIA, or should they stay locally? Tell us in the comments below.


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marooned in Dbn February 09, 2013 at 12:11 PM
Here's an easy solution. Abolish this questionable tax. The DIA is in the city of Detroit. The Zoo is in the city of Royal Oak. Since Detroit is bankrupt in all but just a declaration of being so just yet, Detroit could have just spun off the art museum to it's true owners...it's so-called "benefactors", (the upper echelon of society of Wayne and Oakland counties which always controlled it thru private foundations, and in many instances...donated the very artwork in the place) As for "The Zoo", if Royal Oak likes it, Royal Oak could have volunteered to annex it, or taken over the administration of it from it's own tax base, if it's an asset of that city. If not, the unfortunate animals imprisoned there should be wards of the State and taken care of until their natural deaths, or release into the wild in their own countries of origin, or, their transfer to wildlife habitats around the country and world. Zoos should have never been built, and if paintings and such cannot be held any longer in any form of "public ownership", those objects could be either transferred back to their original donor families, or, if this is not possible, sold to the highest bidder for the payment of the city of Detroit's bills.
Donna Hay February 09, 2013 at 12:37 PM
Guess I basically have to agree with marooned. Part that I don't understand is when voting for or against the DIA or the Zoo does anyone remember anything that said a part of this tax money will remain in Dearborn? Just who was it in Dearborn that decided that a portion of the taxes be kept here?
Pam February 09, 2013 at 12:42 PM
This is theft, pure and simple and why I will never trust any of these people to spend my money for its designated purpose. Now the fools are wasting yet more resources to justify their perfidy!
Adrienne February 09, 2013 at 01:35 PM
I will join the company of those embarrassed that our city is withholding those funds that we voted on to earmark for two of metro Detroit's greatest cultural treasures. I completely disagree with marooned. Perhaps there are those that don't take advantage of these institutions - they're fools plain and simple. The whole community benefits from having cultural and tourist destinations, whether you visit them or not, both in education to our children and income from visitors who may not come for Henry Ford Museum alone, but may make the trip when they can also go to one of the country's best art museums and a zoo is a huge draw for families.
bmruce macdouagall February 09, 2013 at 01:36 PM
A couple of thoughts, #1. The tri-counties (Oakland, Macomb, Wayne) should buy both the Dia and the Detroit Zoo for $3.00 ea. since they have been paying for it for a while anyway. The City of Incompetency, uh, I mean Detroit. will be under a financial manager soon anyway. 2. Form a Tri-County Clerk deptartment whose soul responsibilty is to collect any monies earmarked for any regional mileages such as the DIA and Zoo millages. I have enjoyed both venues, I voted for both millages, These are Jewels that need to be kept, We just need a reasonable solution to get the ownership to correct people. The TRI-COUNTY!
Jim February 09, 2013 at 02:11 PM
This is another black mark against the City Of Dearborn. They should leave their hands off these funds. The voters approved the milages for the DIA and Zoo not to be wasted by our mayor.
Pam Post February 09, 2013 at 02:21 PM
When I voted my approval of the millage for the zoo and the DIA.....I voted for a millage for the zoo and the DIA. I didn't vote for any other city, including my own, to use the funds for their own purposes. My interpretation of that vote meant that I was willing to help both of those causes, which I have enjoyed, and think are jewels in the ever slipping crown that is Detroit. When folks vote for a millage they approve whatever is the expressed purpose on the ballot and are supporting that specific interest. So if the money for these millages is allowed to be pillaged for anything other than what was expressed on the ballot it will put any future millages in jeopardy, no matter what the cause or reason for the millage might be. I for one wouldn't trust that what I am voting to approve would actually go to what I want my money to go to.
marooned in Dbn February 09, 2013 at 02:32 PM
I am not going to tell the readers of this site that I never visited either the DIA, or the "Zoo". One of my kids is an artist, and visits the DIA for study. My point about the DIA is simply the power of a state entity to keep and maintain it. If this entity of local govt. cannot maintain that power, then it must shed that enterprise, and liquidate the contents to pay it's lawful debts. If you tell me that Detroit does NOT own the contents, then those contents MUST be returned to the rightful owners, (the donaters/contributers, for their preservation. Those power elite can then open their own private institute for display, at admission cost. As for "Zoos",I will admit that the "zoo" is a nice walk around. However upon thought, it is akin to touring any prison or county jail, and gawking at the humans behind bars.
Maureen Pawelek February 09, 2013 at 04:23 PM
You're absolutely right, Pam. This was a millage specifically targeted to the DIA and the zoo. Taking that money and using it for anything other than those specific purposes is nothing short of fraud.
Aridog February 09, 2013 at 05:16 PM
Ditto here. How the city, ours or any other, presumes to "capture" a tax legally voted upon for a specific purpose for an altogether different purpose is just political road apples...very similar to the ruling that a penalty for non-performance is really a tax, which is usually thought of as being based upon performance or benefit of some kind. So long as we taxpayers permit the politicians to get away with this fraud, they will continue to do so. They actually believe their own baloney so getting caught is the crime in their eyes, not the orignal fraud...like an election approved collection for specific purpose being applied to a purpose not voted upon. By the way...how's that East End DDA doing with the old city hall sale or lease? The West End DDA is busy with unnecessary expensive changes for a unnecessary new train station, due to some federal pork money, that, once cpompleted, will fall upon Dearborn taxpers locally for operation and maintenance costs. Heck of a system we've got, eh?
Pam February 09, 2013 at 06:07 PM
Marooned, your point of view lost the elections for these millages. That doesn't justify the city stealing some of the voted funds for the city's misuse.
Juana la Loca February 09, 2013 at 06:20 PM
Adrienne, Jim, Pam, and Maureen: I completely agree with you all. I am very angered that our mayor would totally bait and switch us like that. If I can just brag a bit, I am 20 years old and most of my peers don't bother to go to the "little elections". I made an effort to go vote for that millage because I support those two institutions. I was lucky enough to grow up with them and I want others to as well. If he doesn't fix this he's not getting my vote that's for sure. Aridog: I know this isn't directly related to what you were saying but I am still in shock that he sold that building...it is beautiful and so much a part of Dearborn history.
Julie February 09, 2013 at 06:59 PM
O'Reilly and his stooges couldn't wait to get their hands on more money. I agree that this is theft; try getting me to vote for any of your millages now, you thieves! You're "we're just asking the court to determine what the law says" should get costs and attorney fees assessed against you, because you know what the law says and what the intention was when it was passed; the problem is, we as taxpayers will pay for your b.s. and that of the "stellar" legal department again. Does anyone remember this crap when you vote?
bitsy08 February 09, 2013 at 08:25 PM
As far as I'm concerned, I voted for that money to go to the zoo and the DIA. Marooned In Dbn says that RO should take over the zoo since it's in RO The zoo has ALWAYS been owned by Detroit. Doesn't matter where it is. My God. The fact that you would say to liquidate the art museum and free the animals? You know, I always feel that people are entitled to their own opinion, but let's have a SANE approach to solving the problems. These are two gems the City of Detroit has still and I hope we always have them. EVERYONE enjoys both so it seems justified that EVERYONE should pay for them. My mayor (Paletko - Dearborn Heights) is also taking money that I VOTED FOR THE ZOO AND THE DIA. Not surprising they'd take it if they can but that wasn't my intention nor I'm pretty sure was it the intention of those who voted for these. So, Julie, when you accuse O'Reilly "and his stooges," don't act like Dearborn is the only city who's robbed us of our vote. Paletko had us vote more tax money to be paid to Dearborn Heights through the Headlee Override. He SWORE he would make more cuts. Has he done that? Not on your life. And he's running again. I would be really happy to see him and his "ASSistant" gone. I'd like to see an honest politician in that position but I'm not sure there are any.
AndreaVH February 09, 2013 at 08:25 PM
What I can't understand is Why Dearborn Govt. thinks it's theirs?? I remember this on the ballot and remember reading for the DIA and Zoo. NOW, had Dearborn's name been there as well I would have voted the proposal down. I didn't see Dearborn in any of the commercials running on tv before election time promoting this ballot proposal. I want the Zoo and DIA to get all the tax due to them from this proposal....not other cities in Wayne county. Hell, I don't even want Detroit to get any of this earmarked money either!! It's just another reason why I'm not going to vote for the mayor or some of the other city official next election. **just shakes her her in disapproval**
Marci February 09, 2013 at 08:46 PM
I voted clearly for the millahe to keep the cultural integrity of our metro area zoo and the DIA. I am disgusted that Mayor ORielly wants to join a lawsuit to retain this money for Dearborn. He must love contributing more of my tax dollars toward yet another suit where money will go into the pockets of lawyers. Leave it alone O'Reilly! This educated voter opted to save DIA and the Zoo. Culture and the Arts are important.
marooned in Dbn February 09, 2013 at 09:01 PM
Pam, if what I understand is true, in my interpetation of what you posted, then maybe my view should have prevailed in the elections about those millages. As it stands here, most posters have the opinion that these tax proceeds are being waylaid.
marooned in Dbn February 09, 2013 at 09:07 PM
Two words.....eminent domain
AndreaVH February 09, 2013 at 09:11 PM
hear, hear...well said Marci!
marooned in Dbn February 09, 2013 at 09:40 PM
I wasn't gonna go into anymore detail about this but...here goes. The city of Detroit is bankrupt. It's just a matter of time until it's time for an EFM. Don't believe me ? Ask the city employees. They are the ones taking pension cuts, pay cuts and layoffs. Ask the Water Dept employees. Detroit should have went into receivership two years ago. The employees are, in my opinion, the # 1 creditors of the city, they "work" for the pay...they are getting squeezed. (I know that some of you would say the "bond holders" are the #1 creditors) I disagree. NOW, if I were in the same financial condition as Detroit., I would have to declare bankruptcy. Due to the tightening of the bankruptcy laws in/around 2005, creditors now have to ability to place liens, on property, real or otherwise, seize cars and trucks,boats, bikes,ect. Even household possessions. (artworks,furniture,TV's,ect). How should Detroit be any different than you and me? An EFM can do pretty much ANYTHING he/she wants. Got some multimillion $$$$ art ? Off to Christies or Sothebys. Raise that money to pay your debts. (wages/pensions owe'd) I know the public workers in Dbn would agree to that proposition because it could very well all happen HERE.
Aridog February 09, 2013 at 11:16 PM
Have you heard or read that the old city hall building is actually sold or under lease with sales or rental contract? I haven't, but I could be missing something. My point is that, as usual in Dearborn administration latrely, the cart is in front of the horse. The city has no tenant for the second floor of the ADP building they purchased either, unless I am missing something. The school department said nix on that. The behavior follows on the paid parking idea for W. Dearborn before apartments and condos were underway...whoops, no going to be built now, eh? I am all for city improvements, but like you and others here, I do NOT think the bait & switch stunt is an improvement...it is fraud, pure and simple.
Lee Jacobsen February 11, 2013 at 01:54 AM
RO has the zoo, and the bucks, they should keep it. Detroit does not even know how to take money from the State, still can't believe they gave up millions by not letting the State run Belle Isle. Doing is better than talking, and Detroit hasn't done much with Belle Isle for 60 some years. Of course, with Mayor Bing's plan to turn Detroit back into a 'farming ' community, there may be plenty of land available for transferring the zoo back to Detroit. That will take awhile as the council would have to debate for weeks on just what or who would qualify to be in the zoo. The DIA will save Detroit, with the emergency manager having a fire sale of art to get Detroit out of debt, and satisfy it's union's contracts. With millions of available cash, the city council will easily handle the Belle Isle issue, and go on a spending spree with DIA asset money. Doubtful? See here http://www.detroityes.com/mb/showthread.php?2354-In-Detroit-bankruptcy-what-will-happen-to-DIA/page5 Dearborn keeping a pittance for a DIA lost cause will not even be noticed. An emergency manager has plenty of power, and the DIA has plenty of assets. The union in Detroit still has power, and will soon appreciate art in its own way. More here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detroit_Institute_of_Arts
Moe February 11, 2013 at 03:11 AM
O’Reilly just needs to go; this is just more of his arrogance. People need to pay attention to the things he tries to get away with. Clearly these mileages were passed for reason and for O’Reilly to justify “stealing” this money is just more of his trickery. A little over a year ago we passed a millage to “save services” only to have the Mayor use the money to buy a new city hall while services are being cut. O’Reilly settled a contract with the police that put their manpower below charter mandated levels, the result; fewer police officers on the street. For most of the last year the Fire Department has been about 8 firefighters below the charter mandate resulting in higher overtime costs and increased days in which engines and ladder trucks are out of service. One of the reasons we are told we need a new city hall is the over 5 million needed to repair the existing building. How did this building get so poorly maintained? Was it because the city used the money that should have been used to maintain the building for other projects like new cabins at camp? Prior to becoming mayor, O’Reilly was the president of the council and as such he would like to remind people that he was in charge of the budget. Any misspent money over the past several years is his responsibility. Time to “Hit the Road Jack”
Marium Wilke February 11, 2013 at 05:03 AM
I voted for the tax to go to the zoo and the DIA....not for the city to use..This is why the people feel they can't trust in the people they put into office...I am really disappointed in our leaders that allowed this to happen..We need to replace a few people starting with Robert Ficano..This was very disturbing to hear
Tammi Ruselowski February 11, 2013 at 03:56 PM
I agree with Marium wholeheartedly!!! Let's start with ousting Ficano and then move on to O'Reilly. The only thing that O'Reilly believes in is wasting taxpayers' money with frivolous lawsuits.
Emily February 25, 2013 at 08:46 PM
My tax bill states the money amounts going to the DIA and the Zoo. I think it is fraud to state this on my bill and use the money for another purpose. It's really difficult to trust elected officials when they try to play a slight of hand trick with our tax money.


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