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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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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