Rod Meloni: Detroit Zoo and a cautionary tale

Rod Meloni discusses lawsuit against Detroit Zoo, DIA over 'captured' Wayne County tax money

By Rod Meloni - Reporter, CFP ®
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DETROIT - Remember the children's story by Laura Numeroff that goes "if you give a mouse a cookie, he will want a glass of milk?"

There was a second book in the series that went "if you give a moose of muffin he will want jam to go with it." Ultimately he will want you to go to the store to get more muffin mix. It's the cautionary tale we all should take away from the situation at the Detroit Zoo these days. This is decidedly not zoo specific but it's emblematic of a larger problem: politicians taking on the role of mouse and moose as they fund their pet municipal projects.

Read more: Communities sue Zoo, DIA to keep 'captured' tax money

Back in the 1980's the State Legislature apparently green lighted a funding scheme whereby local communities can "capture" [more clearly stated "keep"] a portion of the tax dollars they collect for specific millages like transportation, education and zoos. The local communities used this cash to fund things like downtown development authorities, tax incremental financing and brownfield development authorities.

This in a way is a self-funding program but over the years it has spread across about ten different tax millages collected in Wayne County. The moose is doing a little bit more than nibbling muffins here. In Wayne County alone in 2011, communities skimmed roughly twenty eight million dollars for themselves. The 2012 numbers are not yet available.

Now, to be fair the state is no longer allowing dda's and tifa's; but that could change. In Macomb and Oakland Counties they have asked municipalities not to capture Zoo or newly approved Detroit Institute of Arts money. Wayne County Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz is asking the communities capturing part of these taxes [the DIA tax is not getting collected just yet] so they get their cash. But about a dozen Wayne County Communities, whose dda's and tifa's are funded in part with government bonds requiring payment, are suing Wojtowicz, the zoo and the DIA for the right to keep the cash. Really, they're asking a judge to decide the legalities here. The zoo wants its money, coming to roughly $750,000 over the past four years. The DIA wants to keep all of its money when it starts flowing. The capturers want to keep capturing. The judge will wade in and figure this out.

The larger lesson here is when you give a moose a muffin [i.e. a politician a way to tax and keep tax dollars] he will want the muffin mix and aspire to the whole muffin factory. Higher taxes and complicated funding schemes are trouble. It's the cautionary tale in a time where higher taxes are thought of as not only the norm, but a necessity.

Like the sign says at the zoo, please don't feed the animals!

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