The debate in Ann Arbor, where firefighters are being laid off due to a multimillion dollar budget deficit, is over an $850,000 piece of art.
That's how much the city has agreed to pay German artist Herbert Dreiseitl for a three-piece water sculpture that would go in front of the new police and courts building right by the City Hall.
The city has the money to do it because in 2007, it agreed to set aside for public art 1 percent of money that went into capital improvement projects that were $100,000 or larger. Most capital projects involve streets, sewers and water.
Ann Arbor City Council member Stephen Kunselman, a Democrat, opposed the art deal.
"I think it is incredibly insensitive," Kunselman said. "It is insensitive to the staff and their morale. It is insensitive to the community. There are people out there struggling financially, and here we are spending a large amount of money on a piece of art."
Kunselman said the city is also eliminating the solid waste coordinator from the budget, which oversees trash pickup, and hiring an art coordinator.
City Administrator Roger Fraser wrote in an e-mail that the solid waste coordinator position was eliminated as a cost-cutting measure because the solid waste millage had decreased. Fraser wrote that the art coordinator position would be paid for by the public art fund.
Fraser noted that the public art dollars did not come from the city's general fund, which is used to pay salaries and benefits, and that less than $6,000 of the art money came from the general fund.
The art projects also must have a "thematic connection" to the source of funding, Fraser wrote. The $850,000 art project is water-themed, because the money came from storm water funds.
But some critics say that a city creative enough to fund art from storm water projects should be able to find money to cover essential city services.
"That's the classic argument," said Glenn Thompson, an Ann Arbor resident and longtime critic of city spending. "But the city has become very, very good at shuffling money in and out of the general fund when they want. These people are very good at putting it in and out of the general fund when they wish."
Michael LaFaive, the director of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy's Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative said nonessential services are being funded throughout the state.
"Administrators cry poverty while lavishing money on the beautiful people," LaFaive said. "The threat to dismiss firefighters often comes while officials protect golf courses, wave pools and art. No city can cry poverty while it defends recreation and aesthetics such as art."
LaFaive said administrators get creative with budgets to fund pet projects.
"It doesn't mean officials can't find ways to redirect the money," LaFaive said. "It appears on the surface that they are redefining what a capital improvement is, by designing a sculpture instead of true municipal infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges."