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"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 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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