Cities sue to keep Detroit Zoo funds

By ANDREA POTEET, SHERRI KOLADE, and JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers

Several area communities which have been told to stop capturing funds from a 2008 millage to support the Detroit Zoo and a 2012 levy for the Detroit Institute of Arts are taking the issue to court.

A lawsuit against Wayne County Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz and taxing authorities which oversee the zoo and the DIA filed Feb. 1 by nine cities questions Wojtowicz’s recent demand of the cities to stop capturing a portion of the funds from the millages with downtown development authorities, tax increment finance authorities, and other taxing areas.

Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Taylor, Wyandotte, Belleville, Northville, Romulus, Van Buren Township and Plymouth Township are involved in the suit. The communities are among the 30 that claimed funds from the 0.01-mil 10-year zoo millage.

State law permits communities to establish development districts such as DDAs, TIFAs, and Brownfield redevelopment areas and to capture tax increases in those districts to use locally.

In a statement, Wojtowicz said he stands by his interpretation and remains convinced that “the voice of the voters should be heard and these taxes should benefit the zoo and the art institute.”

Allowing Wojtowicz’s interpretation, however, could be disastrous for cities like Wyandotte, which receives up to $50,000 a year from the captures and has included them in their forecasts for up to 2032, City Administrator Todd Drysdale said.

“The state law is very clear, in our opinion,” Drysdale said to the council when they voted in December to join the lawsuit. “Whether it is a small issue or a big issue, at some point you have to stand on principle that you can’t just make up rules.”

And he said if county rulings can trump state laws, all new milages – and the funds they generate for the city – could be at stake.

“They took the position on the zoo millage and all of a sudden they extended it to the DIA millage,” Drysdale said. “What they’re really saying is any new millage and possibly any renewed millage, we can’t capture the tax.”

Dearborn Mayor John O’Reilly Jr. said the city’s involvement in the suit may help the city hang on to the funds.

“We cannot give out money unless the city has an obligation to pay,” he said. “We decided the only way to resolve (the issue) is to ask for a declaratory judgment on what it means. We are not suing anybody, but we are asking the court to interpret the law.”

Detroit Zoo communications director Patricia Mills Janeway thinks otherwise.

“We want the judge to tell the Wayne County DDAs that they are not allowed to divert zoo millage money for other purposes,” Janeway said. “The communities that have diverted zoo funds need to return the money, stop capturing funds intended for the zoo, and honor the voting process.”

For the city of Taylor, the captured funds at stake represent about $100,000 over the last three years, Mayor Jeffrey Lamarand said. Capturing the tax dollars was, he said, in accordance with both law and municipal policy.

“Our interpretation from our attorneys was that it’s not only our right, but it’s required of a city to exercise that capture,” Lamarand said. “We’ve been capturing and the Wayne County treasurer has never taken a stance. Now, after three years, they’ve taken a different opinion.”

Taylor joined the legal request after being warned by the county treasurer to stop the collection or the city’s rebate would be withheld, a financial loss the cash-strapped Taylor couldn’t afford.

Lamarand said he didn’t expect any clarification too soon.

“It’s going to be a drawn-out process,” Lamarand said. “It will take two years to get anywhere because of appeals from either side. I think it will be decided in the legislature before we have to worry about (a court) opinion.”

Dearborn Heights Mayor Dan Paletko did not respond to requests for comments by press time.