Many have decried in recent years what have become known as “stealth elections” — those placed on ballots in elections, typically held in February or May, when fewer people tend to show up at the polls. And now, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is hoping it has enough support from the Oakland County Board of Commissioners to put a tax proposal on the Aug. 7 primary election ballot that would, if passed, levy up to 0.2 mills for a period of not more than 10 years on county property owners. Yet some on the county board are reluctant to support putting the ballot question before voters in August because they want it to appear on the Nov. 6 general election ballot instead. While this wouldn’t fall into the “stealth election” category if placed before Oakland County voters in August, the concerns raised are legitimate and we hope the measure goes before voters in the fall, when voters are more likely to show up at the polls.
The DIA, which is classified as an art institute services provider under Public Act (PA) 296 of 2010, has been working with officials from Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties for months to drum up the political support to put a millage proposal, which would help fund the museum’s general operations, on the Aug. 7 primary election ballot. Details of the proposed levy were sketchy until recently, when Oakland County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Gingell (R-Lake Orion) introduced a resolution calling for the establishment of the Oakland County Art Institute Authority, a step that would let county officials appoint a five-member panel that would prepare budgets and obtain annual audits.
The authority would have two unpaid members appointed by the county executive and three unpaid members appointed by the county Board of Commissioners. The members appointed by the county executive would serve four-year terms and the members appointed by the county board would serve two-year terms. The Oakland County treasurer would serve as a non-voting member of the board.
Under PA 296, a county can form an art institute authority that contracts for art institute services with an art institute services provider, which the DIA qualifies as under the law. The county art institute authority, however, cannot participate in governance of the art institute.
A mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of a property’s taxable value, which is generally equal to half the property’s market value. A 0.2-mill levy would cost the owner of a property in the county with a taxable value of $100,000 ($200,000 market value) $20 a year.
By May 29, ballot language will have to be submitted to the county Clerk/Register of Deeds Office in order for a tax question to appear on the Aug. 7 primary election ballot.
The DIA argues that it doesn’t have the financial ability to run an effective general election campaign due to the high costs of print advertising and television and radio ads in the metro Detroit media market.
Yet county commissioners have every right to be concerned about maximizing the amount of input Oakland County voters have on the issue at hand. Historically, many shrug off the primary election ballot and instead wait until November to make their voices heard at the ballot box.
For instance, during the last presidential election cycle in 2008, voter turnout was over 72 percent when the electorate showed up to the polls in November. Of the 916,000 registered voters in Oakland County, over 663,000 ballots were cast, according to the county Clerk/Register of Deeds Office. Yet only a paltry 22 percent cast ballots (just over 198,000 of the 892,000 registered voters) during the Aug. 5 primary election that year.
Likewise, nearly 74 percent (645,664 ballots cast out of 874,132 registered voters) of the electorate voted in the 2004 general election, while under 19 percent (159,973 ballots cast out of 861,420 registered voters) did so in the August primary election.
That’s not negligible; those are astonishing disparities that officials need to consider when mulling the DIA tax issue as the days and weeks progress.
To ensure that the greatest percentage of the county’s population weighs in on the proposal if it appears on the ballot, the DIA and county officials need to strongly consider putting the millage before voters in November if at all possible. Yes, the costs of running a general election ballot issue campaign can be high, but it would be better for everyone involved, particularly the electorate, if officials put the tax proposal before voters in November. Advertising has to be considered as a cost of running an effective ballot question campaign, regardless of the cost — that’s simply the cost of doing business in this particular realm.
With several hundred thousand voices at stake in Oakland County alone, it’s the right way to go.