Thursday, September 24, 2009

Tax is not a four-letter word

I'm still trying to get over the spectacle of watching the Dallas City Council, the worst collection of ward-heeling political hacks I've ever seen collected as a single political entity (and I spent a lot of time covering New York and New Orleans councils), pass the worst budget possible under current conditions and possibly the worst budget in the history of the city. And the disgrace of it all is that it wouldn't have happened if these hacks had simply listened to the electorate that put them in office in the first place.

All 15 members of this council are to blame. Even District 13's Ann Margolin, who voted against the budget, cannot be excused because she failed to come up with a legitimate reason for her vote, only an excuse. I got the feeling she was thinking "My predecessor, Mitchell Rasansky, never met a city budget he could vote for and I've got to follow in his footsteps and not think for myself. So I will find an excuse, regardless of how lame that excuse is." Her excuse was PILOT is a tax. Well, of course it's a tax. Everyone, with the possible exception of District 12's Ron Natinsky, who is to this city council what Dick Armey used to be to the U.S. House of Representatives and who may actually live in a Far North Dallas Fantasyland, knows PILOT is a tax. High ranking city officials admit to me on a regular basis it is a tax (all except Assistant City Manager A.C. Gonzalez who is wise enough to always speak as though everything he says is on the record). I have stood beside groups of these city officials at budget townhall meetings and seen them barely conceal their laughter when someone tries to explain why it is not really a tax ... not really. But for Ms. Margolin to use this reason to vote against the budget perpetuated the existing problem with the current council -- the worst in the city's history -- and made as much sense as refusing to go to Disneyland because Mickey Mouse is a rodent. She came across as a petulant child.

When 14-1 went into effect nearly 20 years ago, the great fear was that those elected to the council would only promote the interests of their own district and not the city as a whole. No one, and I mean know one (and I was among the political consultants hired to convince voters to create a more representative council), ever thought we'd see the day when the 15 people elected to the council would not only not be interested in the city as a whole but would completely isolate themselves from the wishes of their own constituencies.

During the deliberations on this budget I attended a number of the council's townhall meetings and I attended them in all sections of the city. And the one message that came through loud and clear was "If it means keeping our rec centers and libraries open on their current schedules, if it means having a vibrant office of cultural affairs, if it means keeping our streets in acceptable conditions, if it means providing necessary services to our seniors, if it means keeping our city clean and safe, then, sure, go ahead and raise my taxes."

I attended one of District 10's Jerry Allen's townhall meetings he held at the Freshman Center of Lake Highlands High School. And I heard staunch anti-tax advocate, former city councilman Alan Walne, actually scold Allen and the rest of the council for not passing the tax increase the voters said they were willing to accept to pay for the 2006 bond program. "You're setting a dangerous precedent," Walne told Allen. "You are saying we can get all these things for free and you know and I know that's simply not true."

I attended another townhall jointly sponsored by District 14's Angela Hunt and District 9's Sheffie Kadane and I sat there and watched as Ms. Hunt asked for a show of hands of all those who favored a tax increase over the proposed cutbacks in city services. More than 60 percent of those attending raised their hands. All Ms. Hunt and Mr. Kadane have done since is to ignore the 60 percent.

Only District 8's Tennell Atkins seemed to be in tune. District 8 stretches across the bottom of the city from the western city limits to the eastern. It is a mess. Think of a California representative who must represent the concerns of a constituent living along the Mexican border with those of one living along the Oregon border. I attended three of Mr. Atkins townhall meetings, one in the far southwestern part of the city, one in the far southeastern part and one in the far southern part. In this instance, however, the attendees at all three of those townhalls knew what was needed to fix the problem, Mr. Atkins heard their cries for help but when he carried their message back to the center of political hackdom, he was scolded and told to stand in the corner until he saw things their way.

And what is their way? Essentially, it's that tax is a four-letter word, something never to be mentioned in polite mixed company. But really a tax is nothing more than the price we pay for government. Would we rather not have to pay for it? Like I would rather not have to pay for a root canal.

But what the the Ward-Heeling Hacks of Marilla don't understand is that not all taxes are equal. A tax becomes more onerous in direct proportion to the number of miles it has to travel before it is disbursed. So when it comes to taxes we hate, federal taxes top the list. Next come state taxes. Local taxes are at the bottom of the list.

Why is that? It has to do with pride of ownership. I will gladly pay to make sure my own house is safe and secure, freshly painted, spruced up, looks clean. That's where I live. That's my home. And, by gum, I'm going to do what I can to --spend what I need to spend -- make it the best in the hood. However, don't ask me to spend that same amount of money to do the same thing for that house in El Paso or Amarillo. And, whatever you do, don't even try to get me to contribute for a new foundation for a house in Miami, Des Moines or, heaven forbid, in Mumbai or South Africa.

People around here are still upset that Jonestown wound up in Arlington and not in Dallas. Why? Because of the economic benefits we lost? Hell, no. What was lost was far more important than economic benefits; it was the right to stick our index finger into the air and shout to the rest of the world "See, Dallas really is No. 1."

What the Ward-Heeling Hacks of Marilla fail to understand is that we, the people of Dallas, are proud of our city and we want to continue to be proud of it. We want to invite outsiders over, show them around and play "Can you top this?" And we're willing to pay for these bragging rights. If you don't believe me, just examine the results of the last bond election or attend a budget townhall meeting of your own sometime. Instead, the Hacks are going to let us slide into a slippery hole that will be terribly difficult to extricate ourselves from.

But it didn't have to be that way. The whole thing could have been salvaged as late as Wednesday's budget discussion. The door was opened when Mr. Natinsky responded to Ms. Margolin's silly objection to the budget. "PILOT is not a tax," Natinsky said simply and straightforwardly, almost as though he actually believed this Big Lie. Oh, I wish I had been on the council at that moment. I would have pushed my Request to Speak button and when Da Mayor called on me, I would have said:

"Colleagues, I want to present a motion that would serve as a substitute to the question now being debated. And I know this motion should receive unanimous approval from this body because I know how much you like to raise fees, but not taxes; and how you steadfastly maintain that PILOT is not a tax. The motion is Be it resolved that the city abandon its current tax structure, including all property taxes and the penny it collects from the sales tax, and, in place of those taxes, institute a series of fees based on the same parameters and formulas. Be it further resolved that, because property owners in the city, who are in the minority, subsidize the majority of the population who are renters, that a fee equal to 1 percent of each month's rent be assessed renters. Be it further resolved that the level of these fees address all the items of the city manager's proposed budget, both those below and above the line. And, finally, be it further resolved that these fee payments should now and forever more be known as Payments In Lieu of Taxes."


Anonymous said...

Well said!

colorado kool aid said...

"Be it further resolved that, because property owners in the city, who are in the minority, subsidize the majority of the population who are renters, that a fee equal to 1 percent of each month's rent be assessed renters."

Do you think the property owner who collects the rent doesn't pay property taxes??? Or that that tax isn't embedded in the amount of rent that renters pay???? Rest assured that renters pay the property owners property taxes. No one gets a free ride here.

Pete -- run for city council yourself and play on the field if you feel this passionate -- sounds like the Dallas council could USE your insight and wisdom. Keep reminding folks that you get the government you are willing to pay for!