L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 310, March 13, 2005
"Words and Guns"
What a State We're In!
Special to TLE
This week, I was in the audience for the annual "State of the City" address offered up by the City Manager of the town where I live. I try to attend these yearly talks to see what our local government thinks the rest of us think. Fair enough. So here's what I think: While I don't think anything that was said was particularly surprising, I think that some city leaders might be a little surprised by what it is I think about what it was I actually heard when I listened between the lines.
The City Manager readily acknowledged that our town has its problems. Many businesses have moved outside of the town limits or have left the area all together. The average income of residents has gone up over the years, but it hasn't increased as quickly or as much as has inflation. Many neighborhoods, while not blighted, are in at least some disrepair. And students are leaving the area to go to college or to bigger cities, never to return. Of course, immediately following the litany of troubles, he offered up some of his ideas for addressing those issues.
During the course of a speech, there's no question that time and forum is limited insofar as details are concerned. The time and place for details is later, in public planning meetings with experts. But even for a speech set to be brief while appealing to the average listener, the Manager's suggestions were sorely lacking in substance if not intent.
It's entirely true that businesses have been leaving the downtown area. The City Manager's solution? In a statement exemplifying his mastery of circular logic, he said that we need to attract businesses downtown. That is, of course, true on a generic plane. But just what should we do to make the downtown area more attractive to businesses?
Even granting that that's a question to be answered later by the aforementioned planning meetings, there's something else we ought to discuss first. Why are those businesses leaving downtown in the first place? Well, as it turns out, it's typically due to a prohibitive city tax and regulatory structure. So instead of spending more of my tax dollars on making the downtown more attractive to businesseshowever that might be accomplishedmaybe city leaders should spend more time working to reduce taxes and revisit regulations so that the downtown won't be made so unattractive in the first place.
The town in which I currently live is fairly old. It only goes to follow, then, that there are many older homes and other buildings, some of which are in disrepair. The disrepair correlates directly to two causes: The people who live there don't care, or the people who live there do care but can't afford to improve the property. Now it's possible that the city might consider property tax breaks for those who improve properties, or even low interest or no interest loans for the purpose. I'm not a fan of entitlement programs, but they've got my money and they're going to spend it anyway, so I'd appreciate it if they'd at least spend it in ways that make sense. But what did the city actually do to address this issue? It set up a program that gives taxpayer dollars to the poorest residents so that they can afford to buy houses they can't afford to maintain.
The City Manager spoke of people choosing to live in other areas unless "they can't afford to choose anywhere but here." That tells you that affordable housing isn't readily available in the surrounding area. But instead of talking about real improvements of one kind or another, he mentions a new housing development that will shortly have a number of homes available with prices "in the $200,000 range." Excuse me for asking, but is the best answer to the city's problems to make the housing unaffordable here, too?
"Brain drain," or at least the loss of younger adults, is a problem in many places and my town is no exception. While the City Manager only mentioned that we need to encourage kids to move back here, or that we need to make this a town they don't want to leave in the first place, he offered no suggestions as to how those things might be accomplished. Instead, he spoke of how he remembered playing baseball as a kid, and how he sometimes now stops to talk with kids who are playing baseball in a parking lot in town. Apparently, because he came back, these other baseball players will eventually return, too. Or not. Or maybe he just likes to annoy kids trying to play ball without being interrupted to answer existential questions offered by a man in a suit. I'm not entirely clear on this point, but I suspect the City Manager isn't, either.
Throughout his speech, and whether he was highlighting a plus or a minus in the community, the underlying current (as usual wherever government is involved) concerned money. The City Manager pointed out that he was sending a balanced budget to the City Commission for approval, but then he said that he wanted to raise taxes. He proudly talked about the cuts the city made to achieve that balanced budget, and then he suggested we consider more taxpayer funded projects.
No matter what the City Manager talked about, all I could hear was a little subliminal voice in my ear saying, "Send money! The City needs more money! Quick, we're spending everything we get, and we need more money! Give us more money so we can spend that, too!" I don't know about you, but in my household we budget in large part based on how much money we actually have at the time. We save for larger ticket items. We prioritize for those times we just can't have everything.
Can you imagine deciding one morning that you need a new car, and then going in to your boss' office and saying, "Good morning, sir, I'm going to need an extra hundred in my paycheck every week. Handle that for me, will you?" How do you suppose that will go over? You can color it in all the "necessity" you want, and the bottom line will still be that you're responsible to make cuts or compromises as required.
Meanwhile, the City is determined to get more money rather than to cut more costs. It sees this as a viable solution probably because it's not taking money from itself but rather from the rest of us. Frankly, I'll bet there's not a city in the country that truly can't afford to do the things it's really supposed to do. It's got plenty of money to plow the roads, staff the police and fire departments, and provide water and sewer services. What it may not have is money for special projects like bike paths, award-winning gardens, or community social events. And what it should not have is the money to support a bloated and/or inefficient staff (come on, it's a government entity; don't tell me there aren't inefficiencies and extras there).
Here's a thought: How about we start saving money by eliminating the vast majority of onerous paperwork and review required for just about everything so that the city can tax, regulate, and license even unto the minutiae of our lives? The real bonus is that this would save on unneeded supplies and employees, but there are other pluses as well. Without forms in triplicate and ridiculous extraneous requirements, the city would certainly get lower and better qualified bids for the projects it does need to complete by businesses unwilling to jump through so many of the hoops currently demanded. And without insanely detailed requirements for everything, homeowners and businesses alike would have more choices and correspondingly better attitudes about everything from improvements to expansions.
After the speech was over, I wasn't thinking about the city's nebulous plans for the future. I was too busy thinking about my pocket in the present. So was the head of a large business that's actually stayed within the city limits. He apparently wasn't much happier with the speech than I was, especially since one of the floated "solutions to our problems" was to increase the tax rates on certain types of businesses of which his is one. I told him he had my support and that I hoped he took advantage of his position to fight the increase. He thanked me, and assured me that he was, indeed, going to fight. (Oh, look, another cost savings for the city: stop extending the reach of your fiscal greed, and perhaps you won't have to spend still more of the money you claim you don't have to defend yourself against the lawsuit that's bound to be coming.)
Personally, I'm only sorry there wasn't a third party to our conversation. The City Manager should have been there to learn firsthand just how it is that the town is alienating businesses and disgusting overtaxed residents. He even might have received some insight on how to prevent more companies from migrating and citizens from moving. Unfortunately, I suspect he would have listened without hearing anything that was said. I'm worried about my pocketbook; the businessman is worried about keeping some kind of profit margin. Local officials, on the other hand, seem to be worried only about what they can tell usand what pie in the sky they can sell usnext time around to keep the money coming for at least another year.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, it should. A very similar story is playing out in towns across the state, and in states across the country. Worst of all, the identical mentality is the overriding blight in Washington these days. All of the government agencies and entities want more money. That's fair; so do I. The only difference is that, when the government wants more money, it simply takes it. When you and I try something like that, we go to jail.
You know, now that I mention it, jail might just prove a fairly reliable solution for more than a few of those problems politicians so love to lament. Maybe we should give real consideration to applying the "go to jail" mandate to thievery conducted at the point of a politician's actions as much as we do to crimes committed at the point of a gun. When you get right down to it, we're the victims either way. Besides, if we're stuck footing the bill anyway, I strongly suspect it'll cost us all less to keep the politicians in prison than it would to support all of their pet projects. And in the interim, just think how much the rest of us could get done!
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