The Detroit Zoological Society has been cheated out of more than a half-million dollars in dedicated property tax revenue over the past few years by a handful of Wayne County downtown development authorities (DDAs), according to officials. The zoological society, which for the past four years has overseen operations at the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak and Belle Isle Nature Zoo in Detroit, isn’t the only one being bilked — Wayne, Oakland and Macomb county property owners who pay the tax, and thousands of voters in those three counties who supported a zoo millage proposal in 2008 also have been gypped. The capture of zoo tax revenue needs to come to a screeching halt — frankly, by any means necessary. And beware — with recent voter authorization of a new property tax collection in the same three counties to support the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), we fear a similar abuse could be just around the corner. That possibility needs to be front and center on officials’ radar screens, and nipped in the bud.
As many as six DDAs in Wayne County, including its two largest — Dearborn’s, which has two DDAs, and Taylor’s — reportedly have captured about $200,000 annually from the zoo millage passed in 2008 to support the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Zoo’s $30-million annual general operations budget, apparently in violation of the existing framework created between the Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties and the city of Detroit when the counties’ zoological authorities were established in advance of the 2008 ballot question going before the region’s voters.
Some of the smaller Wayne County DDAs — which are funded through tax increment financing (TIF) — have stopped capturing revenue from the 0.1-mill, 10-year levy authorized by voters in the August 2008 primary election, since the Oakland County Zoological Authority raised concerns several months ago. The DDAs in Oakland and Macomb counties have agreed not to capture any tax revenue from the zoo millage.
TIF permits DDAs to annually “capture” tax revenues attributable to increases in the taxable value of real and personal property in the authority district after a baseline taxable value is established. In essence, TIF provides a means for a DDA to annually collect tax revenues that would ordinarily go to the county and local governments, and various other taxing authorities such as local police and fire departments, libraries, parks and recreation programs, community colleges, etc. However, all of those taxing authorities have the right to opt out of this TIF process. Such an exclusion was agreed upon by the Oakland, Wayne and Macomb zoological authorities created to contract with the zoological society for services.
Officials from Macomb and Oakland counties have pressed the issue with the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office, the Wayne County Executive Office, and Wayne County Board of Commissioners, citing previous opinions by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office stating that DDAs are not permitted to capture zoo tax revenue.
This offense must be immediately brought to an end on behalf of the more than 70 percent of voters in the tri-county area who supported the zoo millage proposal in August 2008, and — more importantly — every owner of residential, commercial, and industrial property in the three counties paying the tax. Failure to ensure all of the zoo tax revenue goes to the zoological society would be a tremendous, unforgivable breach of the public trust.
If poking Wayne County officials isn’t enough to rectify this misappropriation of public funds, we expect the Oakland County Zoological Authority to seek relief in court. In addition, the offending DDAs should be forced to reimburse the zoo millage revenue they have diverted from the intended beneficiaries.
Unfortunately, we fear this may well be just the tip of the iceberg. Gordon Snavely, a member of the Oakland County Zoological Authority who was also heavily involved in this year’s effort to get a 10-year, 0.2-mill levy for the DIA passed, said the DDAs’ capture of zoo millage revenue could be a harbinger of diversion of DIA millage revenue, since new art authorities for Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties were formed under the guidelines of the same state law used to create county zoological authorities which contract with the zoological society for services.
At least now that the zoo tax revenue capture scheme has been uncovered, we’re somewhat optimistic that the DDAs in Wayne County — and in Oakland and Macomb, for that matter — will be watched like a hawk to make sure the DIA doesn’t get pinched.
In the meantime, it’s past time to start playing hardball to rein in any DDA that’s capturing zoo tax revenue, and to have the zoos reimbursed. Oakland officials need to stop talking about it and do something about it on behalf of the entire region. Don’t chalk that up as another example of dysfunctional relations between suburban and Wayne County or Detroit officials. If Oakland DDAs were pulling these shenanigans, we’d be squawking just as loud. This isn’t a Detroit vs. the suburbs fight. It’s a public trust issue involving a significant amount of public money. Get it fixed — and get it fixed now.