“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.