"Wealthy Minority" Killed Easton's NID
Columnist Jon Geeting says downtown Easton tax proposal failed due to outmoded voting procedure.
When the United States was founded, only white male property owners had the right to vote. This practice endured until the 1820's, when the property requirement was phased out in favor of a requirement that all voters pay taxes. In 1850, the tax requirement was overturned, allowing most white males to vote.
Today, these restrictions on the franchise seem repugnant to most of us.
And yet, this feudal concept of democracy is still alive in Pennsylvania, at the foundation of Pennsylvania's Neighborhood Improvement District Act. which last week enabled a minority of Easton's wealthiest property owners to block a vote on the proposed Neighborhood Improvement District.
The Act, passed in 2000 to helping Pennsylvania's older downtowns , allows 40% of property owners - not even a majority - to prevent a proposed improvement district from ever coming to a vote on city council.
Some, like Councilwoman El Warner, have heralded this process as an example of democracy in action, but how can it be? That would be a disturbingly narrow vision of democracy that I think most Americans would find repellant if proposed for any other election or political referendum.
The United States extended the franchise to non-property owners because there is a recognition in our political culture that the interests of property owners are not always synonymous with the general interest.
That is why we have a representative democracy. The job of the representative in a representative democracy is to balance a range of competing interests, to decide which policies will produce the greatest good for the greatest number.
For all other elections, we say that property owners are just one of those interests, and their political views are no more important than the interests of other groups or of the city as a whole.
A law that gives a minority of property owners effective veto power over city council's agenda is fundamentally hostile to the concept political equality.
The NID may be dead, but city council members certainly shouldn't view this decision as the result of a legitimate democratic process.
News reports alleged that pre-paid postcards and generic form letters were distributed to property owners in a well-organized anonymous campaign by one of the city's wealthiest (one percent!) property owners.
The fact that one individual was able to get signatures from 40% of property owners (198, as of the most recent report) is no small organizing achievement. However, the lopsided organizing effort certainly calls into question the intensity of the letter-signers' opposition. All this really tells us that a large minority of property owners don't want to pay more taxes.
But the question isn't whether people like paying taxes. We know they don't - taxes never poll well. The right question is whether the people's elected representatives think the benefits to the whole city from the Ambassadors and Easton Main Street Initiative programs outweigh the political unpopularity of taxes.
If a majority of city council members want to create a Neighborhood Improvement District, they should be allowed to create one, and the state law should be changed to reflect that.
Debates over budget politics should be resolved through regular municipal elections so that everyone gets a say, not just politically powerful land owners. Tom Corbett and the majority Republicans in Harrisburg may have little interest in helping Pennsylvania's smaller cities, but then they should get out of the way and give cities the flexibility to try to help themselves.
I thought the NID sounded like a fair proposal, but one silver lining of this setback is that there are better ways to pay for these services. Planner Commissioner Dennis Lieb is working on a proposal for a Parking Benefit District, which would be a smarter way to generate more parking revenue than simply raising meter rates across the board, as some have suggested.
Both of these options would be superior to the NIZ's millage rate increase since they would tax pure land rents, not property improvements, so they would not discourage economic development.