Thursday, September 19, 2013

Charity Begins In Government

I'd like to do dedicate a little ink (metaphorically of course) in a mid-week post this week to my friends in the Glass City.  You know who you are (Maggie Thurber).  You're the ones concerned (if not justifiably outraged) over the fact that your City Council is perfectly willing to donate tax dollars that don't belong to them to worthy causes, yet those very same elected officials seem unconcerned at their utter lack of personal contribution to these same supposedly laudable groups.  

I'm sure that knowing of your charitable nature, many of you can't help but feel warm (if not downright ill) inside to know that while you live in a city that's been balancing their budgets in ways that would make double entry bookkeepers weep in envy; the stewards of your public funding can still find it in their hearts to support those who come to them cap in hand.  Short of funds they may be, but apparently long on votes.  It must be inspiring to know that the same people begging to take money each year from the Capital Improvements Budget to balance the General Fund can still find it in their hearts to donate from that Fund that the city has none to spare.   It must make you feel all warm and fuzzy to hear the same elected officials who complain of a lack of funding for proper police and fire protection calmly dispense public checks to private charities.

While you're basking in the smug and self-satisfied feeling that comes from watching these fiscal watchdogs rob Peter to pay Paul (curious, when you're Peter) I must tell you however that Toledo's well-known level of public generosity may soon need to stand in line.  For this November, it's the intention of Jackson County, Missouri (Kansas City) to place a measure on the ballot which would create a 20-year, half-cent sales tax.  Now while county sales tax proposals are certainly nothing new to those in Toledo, the potentially laudable goal of this particular one might be viewed as rather unique (and potentially scary).

If passed, the expected $40 million in annual revenues would go to equip and provide staff to ... wait for it ... medical research.  Kansas City's Children's Mercy hospital would reap some $20 million, with at least another $8 million to go to both St Luke's hospital and the University of Missouri at Kansas City.  All three of these entities already receive private donations (tax-deductible, BTW) for such purposes, but it's thought that such major funding escalation would allow them to increase the size of their research programs, as well as to allow them to recruit top scientists for the effort.   (I wouldn't at all be surprised!)

Let me say first that medical research is a truly laudable endeavor, and one that I support through personal contribution.  But what kind of research are we talking about you here might ask.  "Why, medical research of course," (he said in his best Bill Murray "Stripes" imitation).  Actually, the particular type of research that will be supported by this funding hasn't been defined by those promoting the tax.  It could be anything from a cure for cancer or AIDS to one that's really important, like a cure for the common cold.  (It might even be Alzheimer's research, but I don't remember.)  Of course, it could be that they don't want to go into too much detail, since knowing what the money would go for might make such a taxpayer donation less charitable.   According to a piece in the Kansas City Star though, "Backers of the proposed county tax say it is adequate to make a major difference, medically and economically."   (my added emphasis)
Not surprisingly Kansas City's Mayor and City Council are fully behind this ballot effort.  After all, not only is none of it money from city coffers, but a specific tax like this one doesn't prevent the city from future tax request efforts for project it already has in mind like expansion of the recently approved $100 million, two mile-long streetcar system or the proposed $1.2 billion dollar airport terminal improvement project.  Oh sure, KC could use more police and fire protection as much as Toledo, has their own water and sewer system issues, and has a backlog of street repairs waiting; but pursuing such concerns wouldn't provide the same warm glow as supporting such worthy causes.  Sure, the three largest private foundations in the area could come up with $36 of the $40 million just by setting aside 1% of their assets (again according the the KC Star); but wouldn't that make the taxpayers feel ungenerous by comparison.

Besides, supporters of the tax tell us that if any of this research bears fruit, taxpayers will share in the rewards reaped by it.  Of course their not saying what our share of such research would actually be, but wouldn't taxpayers seem greedy for asking what their cut of this undetermined research would be before committing to funding it for the next 20 years?

Sorry Toledo.  It's not that you haven't shown yourself unfailingly charitable during some of the toughest economic times that any part of the nation has had to face.  Let's face it, you've failed to turn down any but the most ridiculous of tax requests over the years, and your continued tacit support of the city council regularly giving away the money they've torn from your grasp through taxation has all but redefined 'giving til it hurts'.  Kansas City however apparently seems fully ready to raise the bar on both the level of largess and the ridiculous nature of giving.  Like you, their generosity seems to know no bounds (or common sense) and their willingness to tax themselves to provide it apparently knows no limits.  As in the Glass City, here in the City of Fountains, it seems that Charity begins in government.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am compelled to admit with a sense of mean-spirited gratitude and of greedy self-satisfaction that I live in Johnson County, Kansas and not Jackson County, Missouri.


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