Local officials lose sight of taxpayers

August 1, 2010


“A good shepherd shears his sheep,” some Roman emperor said. “He does not flay them.” Most elected officials today haven’t gotten that message. They belong to the school of flaying. They seem to believe that they can skin their constituents alive without shedding any blood.

A strange metamorphosis comes over ordinary citizens when they attain public office. They become intoxicated by the power to tax. They look at the money sitting in all those little piggy banks and think it belongs to them. They dream of seizing and spending it. They don’t feel obliged to listen to the people who elected them. They justify their actions according to whatever “feels right” to them.

The proposal to raise Douglas County real estate taxes by a staggering 16 percent was an example, perfectly illustrating why people despise government and the political class today. Catastrophic recession, 10 percent unemployment, devastating losses in real estate and stock market values — the tax hike advocates didn’t let such petty details stand in the way of their grandiose visions.

Instead of weeding out redundancies and inefficiencies and cutting expenses like everyone else in hard times, they called for $500,000 to “prime the pump” for unspecific economic initiatives. Another $500,000 was needed for “protection of heritage resources and open spaces” — stuff deemed important to the county’s historical, social, economic, political and agricultural heritage.

What investor would voluntarily put his money into a venture on the basis of that vaporous pitch? One of the ideas supporting it was that money spent on “heritage” would attract businesses concerned about their employees’ “quality of life.” A factoid from the pit of unverifiable metrics was cited: “Heritage travelers” spend $300 more per trip than travelers as a whole. What does that mean? Does anyone seriously believe that that if local heritage is touted, mobs of spendthrift sightseers will flock to Douglas County as they do to destinations such as Washington, D.C.? P.T. Barnum would blush.

On top of that, somebody thinks there’s a gold mine in “rural tourism.” Imagine the promotional come-ons: “Walk a Douglas County mile in 97 degree heat and get covered with truck dust. It’s something to tell the grandkids about.” “Ever watch a turtle cross a gravel road? Enchant your city friends with a blow by blow report.” “Ride in the cab of a tractor next to a genuine Kansas farmer. He’ll keep you spellbound with his homespun talk about crop yields and no-till farming.” “Check out the wagon ruts near Globe!” “Visit the famous Museum of Ticks!”

Twenty years ago, Lawrence and Douglas County were booming. This was one of the fastest growing areas in the Midwest. Years of anti-development policies earned the area a reputation for being hostile to business. American Eagle was spurned because it offered “dead end jobs.” Today, the same company employs some 700 people in Ottawa. In 2006, it broke ground on a $54 million addition to its plant.

When its tax abatements expire, American Eagle is expected to contribute as much as $2 million a year to Ottawa and Franklin County coffers, according to an Ottawa Chamber of Commerce spokesperson. Meanwhile, Lawrence has had “virtually no job growth for this decade,” according to the city’s economic development coordinator. Lawrence spent a fortune in legal fees trying to keep a second Wal-Mart out of town. The new store has failed to corrupt the soul of the community and it provides revenue and jobs Lawrence sorely needs.

It’s going to take better leadership, better salesmanship and better ideas than sprinkling pixie dust around the countryside to turn this sad situation around. The appreciation and preservation of heritage is a commendable ideal. But it ought to be done on its own merits rather than on the dubious basis of its power to attract tourists.

Moreover, don’t the tax hike advocates realize that prospective businesses consider the tax environment their employees have to live with? Who’d want to buy a home in a county subject to promiscuous tax hikes? If Douglas County wants to grow, it should cut taxes. (Note: The commissioners have cut their tax increase to 9 percent. One commissioner to his credit opposed some of the increase.)

At a Dole Institute of Politics lecture not long ago, Richard Norton Smith praised Calvin Coolidge for his motto: “I represent the American taxpayer.” How many elected officials from here to Washington would even think of uttering that phrase?

— George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 10 months ago

Unfortunately, there is much more here that is untrue than is true. Just more spinning of the myths spun for so long by the cancerous growthers, with no acknowledgement that their sprawl, done on the cheap but done on the taxpayers' backs, is what has gotten us to where we are.

John Hamm 7 years, 10 months ago

I'd like to see your listing of "untruths." I'm sure it will make interesting reading and discussion material.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 10 months ago

Unfortunately, there is much more here that is untrue than is true. Just more spinning of the myths spun for so long by the cancerous growthers, with no acknowledgement that their sprawl, done on the cheap but done on the taxpayers' backs, is what has gotten us to where we are.

cato_the_elder 7 years, 10 months ago

Excellent column. As Coolidge said, "The business of America is business," and far too many tax-happy politicians have forgotten that.

My favorite Coolidge story concerns the time a guy bet his friend that he could get Coolidge, a reticent man, to say more than two words. When he met Coolidge and told him of the bet, Coolidge paused and then replied, "You lose."

Centerville 7 years, 10 months ago

Thanks for the first column I've seen in this paper in a long time that speaks from the 'demand' side of the public, rather than the 'supply' side of government. Excellent. Please keep contributing.

kansasredlegs 7 years, 10 months ago

That one commissioner was Jim Flory. Though I don't agree with Mr. Flory's on all issues, he was attempting to look out for the taxpayer. Mr. Flory was correct when he indciated that Nancy Thellman and Mike Gaughan "own it", the tax increase as they intend to vote for it.

FYI - The Final Budget has not been voted on, it's time to pack the house the evening of August 18 to show them who really is in charge. If they don't vote with the masses, then the mases won't for them.

BTW: Mr. Gaughan will be seeking reelection this fall. We, DG CO Taxpayers, need to show him the door.

Robert Schehrer 7 years, 10 months ago

I don't know why everyone is now so concerned about property tax increases. Property taxes have been going up for years. In the last 10 years my home real estate taxes have gone up 63%. That being said, I would still rather live in Douglas County vs. Franklin County. The 2009 combined mill levy for Ottawa and Franklin County in 2009 was 99.89 mills. Whereas, the combined mills levied for Lawrence and Douglas County was only 59.50. It looks like the folks in Franklin County are paying alot of extra taxes to offset the tax abatements given to American Eagle. Something like 67% more.

George Lippencott 7 years, 10 months ago

Property values in Franklin are lower - much lower. I bet thay pay less - much less - on an equivalent home than we do

George Lippencott 7 years, 10 months ago

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus (anonymous) replies…


You are a classic example of the problem. The people paying the taxes have a right to complain, too. Just how do you perceive they are responsible for the growth? Little if any of the county budget increase has anything to do with growth. It has to do with delivery of servcies provided to some at the expense of others.

How much tax do you pay Mr. Bozo. Having a free ride?

Richard Heckler 7 years, 10 months ago

Can The Arts Save Your Small Town?

by Joanne Steele on August 3, 2010

Last weekend I had one of those serendipitous happenings that keep my belief in magic alive.

Phoenixville First Fridays feature live music, open studios and gallery showings.

The topic of our monthly Revitalization Team meeting was to be art as an economic development tool. Who should appear at my info table at our small town summer festival but an expert in art towns!

Joe McArdle is a resident of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, a former steel town that revitalized itself by attracting artists and selling itself as an art town. They’ve been at it for years with great success.

Here are some of Joe’s sage suggestions: 1. Start small to grow big.

It’s common these days for small towns to get excited about something and go for a big grant, or try to raise taxes to pay for something before thinking it through and doing the requisite planning.

Douglas County, Kansas is in an uproar about raising property taxes to pay for heritage enhancements to attract tourists.

Better to grow into something than to try to go big and fail. 2. Don’t ask left brain people to do right brain work

Artists are notoriously bad at marketing themselves. That’s not always true, of course, but something that a community can offer, to help artists do what they do best – make art.

In Joe’s home, Phoenixville, old vacant buildings were turned into arts incubators, with small low cost studio spaces created for working artists. The storefront is devoted to displaying their work.

Monthly art walks and arts events are put on by the town to attract potential buyers from nearby urban centers. Phoenixville was marketing itself as an art town.

  1. Give visitors a reason besides art to come to your town.

Joe stressed that the best way to draw arts patrons, besides good art, is good food. Attracting good restaurants gives urbanites a reason to make your small town their getaway destination.

This is vastly oversimplified, but the core to Phoenixville’s success is:

* Working slowly to build success.

* Nurturing artists by giving them great space and good marketing

* Giving visitors multiple reasons to plan a getaway to your art town – good food, good art, regular events and activities.

Here’s another post that might interest you:

Use Your Existing Arts and Cultural Assets to Build your Rural Tourism Destination


Richard Heckler 7 years, 10 months ago

Phoenixville is booming enterprise. Attended the most recent First Friday and the downtown was packed. Lots of stores/shops open.

Noticed a considerable number of cyclists in Phoenixville which is part of the arts expansion I am assuming. A new situation.

Last week-end Philadelphia had a touring the city event/race which attracted an estimated 1700 cyclists.

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