"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  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.

 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  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.

City council would also be wise to consider  a land value tax, or two-rate tax, which has been employed to great effect in Pittsburgh and 15 other PA municipalities.  

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. 

Jon Geeting December 13, 2011 at 04:14 AM
It seems like we disagree at a more fundamental level about whether these programs work. You seem to be arguing that they don't work, and if that's your position then of course the NID doesn't make sense. I think things like facade improvements and having a coordination point between entrepreneurs, the city and commercial property owners are useful services. I think they add value by reducing the number of vacant storefronts, and by making buildings look nicer. When a storefront goes dark for years, the properties next to it see their value decline, right? And when somebody finally fixes up that storefront and opens a business, the value of neighboring properties increases. It's the same reason neighbors complain about the guy who doesn't mow his lawn. One bad property hurts home prices on the whole block, and the reverse is true of well-maintained properties.
An interested bystander December 13, 2011 at 01:17 PM
You're right, Holmes' restaurant wasn't doing well. But he's been there for decades, putting his own money at risk time and time again. Not government money, or someone else's money. HIS OWN. Huge difference, one that honestly I don't think you comprehend. You know who else failed at some point in their lives? Steve Jobs. Thomas Edison. Abraham Lincoln. Richard Branson. Winston Churchill. Think they learned from their failures? Think others learned from what they did wrong? Your shortsighted view that you can only learn from success is a mistake.
An interested bystander December 13, 2011 at 01:21 PM
I'll give you the point that the programs work - but at what cost? This new plan was too damn expensive, people couldn't afford it, and it wasn't providing enough value for the investment. So instead of trying to find another path to hammer people with taxes they can't afford, sit down and figure out a way that works for all. Example - other cities run theirs with one paid employee and a ton of volunteers.
Jon Geeting December 13, 2011 at 01:36 PM
That's a very well-argued defense of the propertarian democracy that was originally established by the Constitution. It's their money that paid for the services - why should anyone else get a say? Only problem is, I think most people agree that's a disgusting elitist view of politics. I'm totally open to other ideas for ways to deliver these services and ways of financing them. I've been arguing for the NID because it's been the proposal most likely to actually pass. But two things I think are critical are finding a dedicated revenue stream for them, and not allowing the level of service to deteriorate. I'd be wary of any program overly reliant on volunteers for that reason.
An interested bystander December 13, 2011 at 02:01 PM
Examples abound with volunteerism working, from the Emmaus Main Street Program to large youth associations. It's hard work yes, but it does work well. One paid employee is all Easton needs. Give them office space at City Hall and make them a city employee so they are covered under the city's employee benefits package. All in costs would be under $100k and you could have a very effective Ambassador/Main Street program.
Jon Geeting December 13, 2011 at 03:30 PM
Seems like a pretty lean operation as it is. Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't Kim Kmetz and Megan McBride the only staff members at EMSI? And isn't Megan managing the Farmer's Market full-time? (http://www.eastonmainstreet.org/contact-us) I'm more skeptical about the Ambassadors, but it's hard to argue that downtown isn't cleaner since that program began. That's the sort of "real world experience" I value - visible results. An alternative way of keeping the sidewalks clean would be to better define property rights and expectations for cleanliness in the code, and then issue fines for violations. I doubt this would be more popular than just paying the Ambassadors to do the work, but I bet it would work.
An interested bystander December 13, 2011 at 04:13 PM
If it has a full-time employee who's sole job is managing a seasonal farmers market that's open one day per week, it's not lean at all, it's laden with fat. That job is 10hrs/week max. I really hope you're wrong about that.
Jon Geeting December 13, 2011 at 04:32 PM
I have no idea whether that's her sole job, and can't presume to know how much work there is. I would expect the workload to increase with the new indoor location. To bring it back to the topic of the column, the productivity issues you raised are important for determining *how much* revenue is required to run the programs, but that is a separate issue from choosing *what kind* of tax to use, and *who* gets to decide whether the district is created at all.
Amend December 13, 2011 at 05:49 PM
Comparing Easton's Main Street to Emmaus's isn't a fair comparison. Emmaus is a much smaller community, and it lacks the depth of problems that Easton has. As a person who helps organize these two programs, I can assure that they are run very efficiently, and Main Street utilizes the efforts of some 60 or so volunteers. to assume otherwise is jaded, and lacks any investigation on those postulating such. be an educated citizen, not a gossip. as for why the NID failed, it would be simply to say that those advocating for it didn't sell it well enough, but that's really more of a smoke screen that fogs the philosophical positions at the heart of the debate. those who embrace these programs know what the impact has been over the past 7 years. in the worst economy in nearly a century, Easton is somehow maintaining growth. that's not a reflection of luck or some level of mismanagement. that's hard work and ROI. to the opposition, this is meaningless. they are disconnected, so no level of informing would change that. their opinion is solidified prior to any discourse because their opinion is based on that disconnect, and how that disconnect affects their view of the community. so they see is at residential v. commercial, as a tax instead of a fee, robbery instead of investment. they vilify businesses investing in their community as they spend money in the suburds on cheap goods made in China; all the while complaining about the state of the city and why their taxes keep going up.
Jon Geeting December 13, 2011 at 06:13 PM
Thanks for clarifying, Amend. Sorry for the idle speculation. You make good points - this is the same fight we are having at all levels of government. The opponents of these programs don't care whether they work because they are reflexively opposed to taxes. That's what it comes down to. For ideological reasons, they think government shouldn't ever try to do anything. I think the Panto administration has proven that an activist city government and an engaged civil society can in fact turn things around if they have the right ideas. Some people have a vested interest in downplaying the city's recent successes for this reason, but you can't argue with visible results. Businesses are opening, the bond rating's improved, construction is happening. Has there been an Easton mayor who has presided over more improvement?
An interested bystander December 13, 2011 at 06:54 PM
Sorry to disappoint you Amend but I also know the organizations very well. Only 60 volunteers in Easton is very low, Emmaus has substantially more volunteer support than that even though it's a smaller town. Sounds like Easton has some efficiencies to go after. And we all know what happens when government gets involved - volunteerism drops because it becomes something that's paid for. It's very easy to blame people who oppose this initiative for being disconnected, or that they don't want government to do anything. That's just not true. There some who are disconnected, of course - as there are on your side of this discussion as well. Instead, listen to what they're saying - this plan was too expensive and didn't provide enough of a return. So I repeat, let's try to come up with a better plan instead of another way to jack money out of people's pockets.
Jon Geeting December 13, 2011 at 07:05 PM
Public services can always be provided more efficiently. That's not the point. The point is that quality public services are worth paying for, and it's worth finding a dedicated revenue stream to pay for them. You are conflating the question of appropriate funding levels with the question of whether there should be a dedicated revenue stream.
Amend December 13, 2011 at 07:32 PM
ah yes, this mythical "better plan" that is half price and shifts the burden to someone else; because surely it has been functioning inefficiently (tho somehow successfully) up until now. to your point about low volunteerism and your knowledge of the organization, certainly you are a volunteer then, no?
ABEcomment December 13, 2011 at 08:31 PM
Please note that although you state here they are Robert Haver's postcards, you also claim this is an anonymous campaign in your original psot. Both clearly can't be true. I saw him at at least two City Council meetings and after one he was speaking to people and handing out his literature. That can't qualify as an anonymous campaign. Even though you are clearly not happy with the results of it, be fair and call it what it was. On why it failed, look at the NID map GEDP came up with: http://www.eastonpartnership.org/documents/Easton_NID_Newsletter1.pdf Notice that the area served by the two programs is only in the very center. Holmes' property, Haver's property, properties north of 22, the residences and lots of others were going to pay for the merchants in the middle to get services. This is what I heard made people who were opposed most unhappy. If the programs are worth it, either only the merchants served or the whole city should have paid. But, it seems like GEDP couldn't make the numbers work with only the merchants and couldn't convince Council to raise taxes on the whole city, so they tried this compromise and failed. Maybe something else, PBD, etc. will work.
Jon Geeting December 13, 2011 at 08:51 PM
ABEcomment, sorry, unfortunately US campaign finance disclosure laws are laughably weak, so it's not possible to say with 100% certainty that Mr. Haver was behind this campaign, even though news reports have basically inferred as much. Wearing my civilian hat, I personally believe Mr. Haver was behind it, but it would have been irresponsible to accuse him directly in my column. I think the point about the service area is pretty weak. If waterfront property owners wanted more of an Ambassadors presence on Larry Holmes drive, they definitely could have negotiated that. That would have been a perfectly fair request and I'm sure that city council would have agreed to put that in the deal. The obvious explanation is that they didn't want a higher tax bill, so they organized to kill the proposal.
An interested bystander December 14, 2011 at 02:02 PM
Right now I serve on several nonprofit boards and also volunteer for youth activities. Over the years I have also for my church and several social service organizations. I also write checks to the extent I can. I'm lucky, and I was raised to give back to the community in every way I can. So again nice try. So yeah, I volunteer.
An interested bystander December 14, 2011 at 02:03 PM
Quality services are worth paying for, yes - but not paying more than they're worth! That's my point, we can't just throw money at problems, we need to solve them.
Amend December 14, 2011 at 02:34 PM
My question was about you're involvement in the Main Street Initiative, not if you volunteered at all. You're involvement in other organizations doesn't lend you clarity towards EMSI, and reading articles doesn't make you engaged either, That's just silly to assume that it should. Which leads me to my next question, how have you come to the conclusion that the budget in question is tantamount to us paying more then they are worth? and how do you suggest we solve our problems, by abandoning successful programs? That's my problem with much of the opposition. They speak of things as tho they have answers when they have none; other than to say that they aren't willing to pay for solutions. They observe from a distance and speak as tho they are critically informed, when they have little to offer other than their opposition.
Jon Geeting December 14, 2011 at 02:54 PM
What is supposed to be the evidence that the programs aren't worth what GEDP says? That 198 people signed a postcard saying they didn't want to pay? That tells us nothing of value.
An interested bystander December 14, 2011 at 03:13 PM
But talking to many business and property owners in Easton, which I do regularly, gives me a pretty clear understanding of what's going on there. What I have said from the beginning is this process needs to be inclusive, needs to focus on the needs of the business owners because they're the ones at risk here, and needs to be as efficient as is humanly possible because people don't have extra money laying around! Why are these points so hard to understand? I don't have all the answers, nor do you. I don't want to see successful programs abandoned either - unless their cost outweighs their benefits. Throwing more money at problems does nothing without a solution that has been developed in conjunction with the people that have to live with that solution.
Jon Geeting December 14, 2011 at 03:22 PM
But you haven't shown that the "cost outweighs the benefits." You haven't even come close to providing proof for this claim. It would be "throwing more money at problems" if the programs were badly designed and not producing results, but you have already admitted that the programs are showing results: "I'll give you the point that the programs work" People like these programs. Plenty of businesses want to continue supporting them. The only hurdle left is anti-tax politics. At that point, I think city council just needs to plow ahead and pass the thing, anti-taxers be damned.
An interested bystander December 14, 2011 at 03:33 PM
What I'm saying is that the opposition to the NID was based on the property owners' belief that there would not be enough return for the increase in taxes. That's their feeling, and it's not going to change unless you prove otherwise and that hasn't happened. The only way you're going to do that is to sit down with people and talk about it, show them the budget, show them what will be done, tell them who's accountable to make it happen. In short, show them the proof. Avoid things like, " your real estate will be worth more" because that's meaningless unless they sell their property. Show them how it's going to put more money in their pocket in the next 6, 12, and 18 months. How their business will be more successful than if this tax wasn't levied and these services provided. I go back to the original point Jon - this case hasn't been made, and a better organized opponent did it in. The proponents have no one to blame but themselves for not making their case.
Jon Geeting December 14, 2011 at 03:40 PM
198 people signing a prepaid postcard is not proof that the case hasn't been made. It is not proof of anything, other than that 198 people don't want to pay more taxes. It just isn't. It would be foolish to draw any conclusions at all from this. I'll go back to my original point - property owners can feel however they want about it, but their opinon isn't the only one that matters. It should've been left up to city council to pass this. The process established by the state's NID law is absurd and undemocratic.
Amend December 14, 2011 at 04:18 PM
I'm a downtown business owner and resident. I've been chair of PRIDE, a board member of the EBA, a founding member of Main Street, and now a board member of the GEDP. I dont think that automatically grants my omniscience, but it does afford me a unique perspective. I can tell you, from my vantage point, the ROI from these programs is obvious. The NID was defeated by out of town land owners, those who separate themselves from the community and the disengaged. It was a matter of politics, not worth. As I stated before, no amount of education was going to change their preconceived bias. I've had many conversations with those in opposition, and even after informing them of how inaccurate their "facts" were, they still chose to believe their faulted logic. I'm not calling people stupid, but I will say that there was a level of ignorance that was insurmountable. That's why citizens need to take it upon themselves to be informed and not spoon fed their information. When I have questions, I go ask the person I think can best answer. I don't just create an opinion on half truths. If nothing else, the process demonstrated how fractured we truly are as a community. And to your point about better cheaper solutions, there is no free magical panacea out there. It's going to take effort and investment to keep our community moving forward. Thinking otherwise isn't a realistic solution.
An interested bystander December 14, 2011 at 06:35 PM
Amend, what you're saying about your conversations is very similar to what I'm saying about my conversations. I do not think this was defeated by out-town land owners though. In my opinion the people you talked to had formed their opinions based on what they thought to be true, then the out-towners provided the organization to get it done. But no matter how your slice it, there was not sufficient support for this initiative. Jon you keep going to the 198 cards and not what people are saying when you walk the street and talk to them. You'd learn more in 1 day out in the community than you will in a year staying behind a computer. Get out and talk!
Jon Geeting December 14, 2011 at 06:48 PM
Anecdotal evidence is even less useful than the 198 postcards. A larger sample size is needed for anyone to comment with any accuracy on what the majority opinion was. My point is that it shouldn't matter what the majority opinion is. The only opinions that should matter in the end are what elected city council members think is best for the whole city.
An interested bystander December 14, 2011 at 08:18 PM
Who said anything about only talking to a few business and property owners? Easton isn't that big, talk to most if not all of them. You and I both know politicians care most about 1 thing, getting re-elected. Majority opinion sure matters in that regard. And I have to ask - why are you so opposed to an inclusive process? Wouldn't that help bridge the gaps and mistrust that Amend was talking about?
Jon Geeting December 14, 2011 at 08:25 PM
What I am saying is that you have no basis to say that there wasn't sufficient support, or that advocates didn't make the sale. No objective information exists to support that claim - not anecdotes, not 198 postcards, nothing. That is 100% opinion. I am arguing for a more inclusive process than you are. I love that the NID law requires public information sessions. It would be great if there were even a few more. But after the public information sessions, the proposal should go directly to city council for an up or down vote. A referendum of property owners is never appropriate.
An interested bystander December 14, 2011 at 08:31 PM
Then instead of attacking the people who didn't support this initiative, try to change the law that governs the process. But the fact is this was a fair process (meaning both sides had ample opportunity to organize and get out their support) and you lost. If you choose to learn from that loss or take the easy way out and blame the process is certainly up to you. I'd choose to learn, but that's just me.
Jon Geeting December 14, 2011 at 08:47 PM
Did you even read my column? Literally the entire first half is spent arguing that the state law is flawed. That's what the column's about. The need to change the state law. The second half is about how that flawed state law resulted in a process that, while unquestionably legal, has zero democratic legitimacy. I wholeheartedly support peoples' right to maximize their political advantage down to the letter of the law, but my point is that the current law allowed for an immoral situation where one rich guy was able to capture the process for self-serving ends.


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