By Jan Worth-Nelson and Patsy Isenberg
A proposed county-wide millage that could bring in up to $8.7 million/year for the arts in Genesee County for the next ten years will be on the Aug. 7 ballot.
Backers of the proposal say it would guarantee substantial support and widened access for what its backers call one of the area’s “good news stories,” including educational enrichment and free admission to the county’s best-known cultural institutions and many others in the outcounty.
The .96 mill (96 cents/$1,000 taxable value) would mean about $48/year more in property taxes for a home assessed at $50,000 for the next ten years.
Flint Cultural Center Corp, GFAC would distribute funds
If passed, the millage revenue would be distributed from the county to the Flint Cultural Center Corporation, which would allocate it to the Flint Institute of Arts, the Sloan Museum, The Whiting Auditorium, the Capitol Theater, the Flint Youth Theater, The Flint School of Performing Arts, the Longway Planetarium, The Flint Symphony Orchestra, The Flint Institute of Music, The Friends of Berston Fieldhouse, and The New Floyd J. McCree Theatre.
Based on the county’s population and the average price of homes in the county, the yearly revenue from the millage would be about $8,776,000 in the first year.
Of that, $500,000 per year would go directly to the Greater Flint Arts Council (GFAC), which would distribute the funds through grant making to other county arts agencies.
According the non-profit Citizens for a Better Genesee County, a group that came together specifically for the millage campaign, “Flint and Genesee County should be known for more than water issues or infrastructure problems or Netflix’s ‘Flint Town.’” Exact wording of the ballot proposal is available at bettergenesee.com or at gc4me.com.
Citizens for a Better Genesee County, headquartered in Fenton, is led by president and Fenton resident Randall Thompson, a former State of Michigan and U.S. Congressional staffer who now runs his own marketing business.
The arts in Genesee County are “a good news story,” Thompson exclaimed. “The Cultural Center is a gem of Genesee County.”
“When you consistently hear bad news, you’re not going to attract businesses or good jobs or keep up good housing values. But we’ve got another story to tell.
In fact, “We’ve got a boatload of incredible success stories in the arts here,” he said. “We want to say, listen, come here! It’s a great place to live and we love it here.”
The group wrote and submitted the millage proposal ballot language to the Genesee County Board of Commissioners in early spring. Commissioners approved the proposal 5-3 in April. Commissioners Ted Henry, Martin Cousineau and David Martin voted against it and Bryant Nolden abstained.
The proposal was endorsed by Flint Cultural Center Corporation in a letter signed by Executive Directors Jarret Haynes (The Whiting), John Henry (FIA), Todd Slisher (Sloan/Longway) and President and CEO Rodney Lontine (FIM).
How Much and for What?
The $500,000 allocated to GFAC would be dispersed annually for grants to support arts education and cultural enrichment programs at other nonprofit and governmental arts and cultural institutions in Genesee County, groups like The Fenton Players, Clio Cast and Crew, the Flushing Area Historical Society, or the Grand Blanc Arts Council.
In addition, it would guarantee free general admission to the Sloan Museum and the Flint Institute of Arts and selected discounts on shows and programs at the Longway Planetarium, the Whiting, the Capitol Theater, Flint Youth Theatre, Flint School of Performing Arts, Flint Symphony Orchestra and Flint Institute of Music. Also significantly discounted if the millage passes would be admissions to McCree Theatre & Fine Arts Centre’s mainstage productions. In addition, McCree would offer free after school workshops and free admission to Black History Film Series and its afterschool workshops for students in Genesee County. Events offered by Friends of Berston Fieldhouse would be free or reduced for Genesee County residents.
Advocacy, critique and accountability
Charles Winfrey, director of The McCree Theatre & Fine Arts Centre, has publicly supported the millage effort, making a plea for votes during his introduction to “Give Me That Old Time Religion” performance in May.
Winfrey said, “I’m here today to ask you to pray on it and to vote yes on it when you go to vote. If that millage passes, it will support not only McCree Theatre but the Berston Fieldhouse on the north side of Flint to allow us to continue our programs. But it will also enable the entire cultural center here in the City of Flint to sustain themselves for the next ten years.”
Former City of Flint ombudsman and longtime downtown attorney Terry Bankert voiced reservations about the millage proposal, writing on Facebook, “I object to using public dollars for unaccountable private institutions,” and said he objected to what he called the “sleazy politics” involved, particularly, what he called the “untransparent language of the ballot question.”
He said he is unhappy about what he views as a lack of transparency and accountability for how the money would be spent. He said “back room deals” had led to several changes by the Board of Commissioners in the original proposal—to benefit a wider variety of arts recipients.
The community needs information, Bankert said. “Who are the people involved? What recourse is there if we don’t like what they do?”
Thompson said CFBCC consists of about 25 grassroots volunteers who meet monthly. He said he is spokesman and only “named officer” and that the group has no office but accomplishes its work around a handful of kitchen tables.
Responding to Bankert’s accountability concerns, Thompson replied that all the arts agencies involved, as 501c3 (nonprofit) organizations, are required by law to file annual reports with the IRS, called 990s, and that those reports would be available to the public.
Also, he said, if the millage passes, the Board of Commissioners is poised to consider two proposals: one to place county commissioner representation on each of the recipient organization’s boards, and another to appoint an ombudsman to oversee use of the millage and conduct yearly audits.
Ultimately, Bankert said, “I’ll probably vote for it. This resource may not continue to exist without this millage help. I have a business and a home within a slingshot of the Cultural Center, and it’s a benefit to the community, a bona fide community resource.”
Thompson, who has five kids, said working on the campaign has been satisfying so far. He said his previous work in Lansing and Washington, D.C. kept him out of town much of the time, and this time he’s found himself able to make a difference right at home.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Patsy Isenberg can be reached at email@example.com.