Thursday, December 13, 2012
The Dark Side of Democracy
The voices of Democracy have spoken this week in Kansas City, and a new transit system will be implemented in a very small part of the downtown area. According the Kansas City Star, voters approved, by a margin of 344 to 198, a 25 year property tax increase to fund a $100 million, two mile long streetcar system. One might think that the only thing smaller than the size of what's being called a transit system is the voter turnout that approved it. That turnout however, is not the result of voter apathy, but instead the result of what some might consider an abuse of the democratic process which created a 'special downtown tax district' to achieve its ends. All well and good you might say. If locals want to tax themselves for capital improvements of this nature, it's their right to do so. Would you consider it equally fair however, if you knew that this property tax, and the 1 cent sales tax increase that's the other part of the funding for this project, could only be voted on by residents of the tax district?
Then again, according to the KC Star piece, this isn't going to cost that much anyway. "The owner of a $200,000 condo will pay $266 in additional taxes. That’s an 8.7 percent residential property tax increase. Commercial property owners will see their property taxes go up an additional $1,500 for every $1 million in market value on their property. That’s a 5 percent commercial property tax increase.". It's a song we've heard sung before. Of course many of those residents voting were more probably tenants rather than owners, who though living in the special tax district would not be subject to the property tax imposed (at least, not right away). Is it fair to you that owners of businesses in this new tax district, most of whom do not also live on the premises of the business they own, were not allowed to vote on the tax that was about to be imposed upon them?
Would you find the whole process disingenuous then, if you realized that the burden of the sales tax as well would fall far more on industrial and commercial enterprises selling in the district than on residents, who still had the freedom to purchase outside of the area where the tax will be imposed? Would it likewise be considered voter disenfranchisement where KC residents outside the district were concerned that they weren't allowed to vote for the $2 million dollars annually that the city says it will now be contributing to the operation of this 2 mile transit system. How about the fact that the city's water utility system, which like so many other metropolitan systems around the country is suffering from ill-kept and horribly out-of-date infrastructure, has announced that it will be contributing $4.5 million to the construction of the system? When does a water department need to contribute to a transportation system, rather than their own desperately needed infrastructure improvements? Why is it permissible, at a time when they are raising rates, for them to invest in anything other than their own needs?
But wait, there's more! Without knowing whether this 2 mile system will garner any ridership, let alone enough to be able to come close to paying for itself, local politicians are already looking at expanding and incorporating this toy train system into a proposed $650 million dollar plan for two commuter rail lines to connect outlying areas with downtown. These elected officials are right now pushing for yet another vote, this one for a county-wide 1 cent sales tax which could help pick up the slack (and spread the burden) of funding for these first street cars, with future tax revenues to provide a steady revenue stream for more to come. And of course, as with all public transportation systems, the federal government is supplying funding as well, contributing an initial investment of $18 million so far in (you guessed it, taxpayer funding) to prime the pump; something which none of the rest of us were allowed to vote on.
Now remember that this is a part of the city which currently has public transportation in form of buses. All of the money being spent for this change will not provide something that currently does not exist, but merely a shinier version of it for a neighborhood. And while each step of this process could ostensibly be considered the use of the democratic process to achieve a desired goal, somehow it feels like there's a taint to this particular use of the process that can't be easily removed. While in theory nothing done has been illegal, what has been done cannot easily be considered admirable either. Worst of all, the fact that a special interest group has successfully crossed over to the dark side of the democratic process here will no doubt inspire other groups to similar efforts in imitation of this twisted process.
I can't help but wonder if even the over 300 that voted for this toy transit system into being this week won't feel some doubts about it in the days and years ahead? I wonder how thrilled they'll be while their streets are torn up and access to homes and businesses are restricted and the city attempts to lay track? I wonder what commitment to upkeep and repair such street cars will continue to provide if the system remains an isolated anomaly and doesn't get to expand throughout the rest of the city? Will this form of transit ultimately add or subtract to the value of homes and businesses in the area? How happy residents will be with it, knowing that this performance of their civic duty will mean living in the highest tax district in the city? Mostly however, I wonder if in the years to come, they and the city will be proud of the path that they've forged this week; or will they simply feel that they've sold their souls to the political Sith lords on the dark side of democracy?