That hand in your pocket is Alex Apostle’s

There’s been surprisingly little media coverage of the Missoula County Public Schools ballot. Voting ends 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 4. Two issues are on the ballot – five school board seats up for election (although only 1 one-year term is being contested – by Ethan Heverly and Shelly Wills), as well as an Elementary (Grades K-8) Operation and Maintenance Levy for $195,962, or approximately 1.97 mills.

What of this levy? It will increase taxes on a home with an assessed value of $100,000 by approximately $3.36 per year, and on a home with an assessed value of $200,000 by approximately $6.72. It doesn’t sound like a lot of money, and gosh knows, the education system in the country needs all the help it can get.

But, take a look at what it will fund, according to the School District website:

* Educational programs – teachers, administrators, para-educators, support staff, music programs, art programs, athletics, assessment tools, counseling services, nursing services, cooks and various staff.
* Equipment and Supplies – textbooks, paper and printing, classroom supplies, library books and various equipment.
* Utilities and Facilities Maintenance – natural gas and electricity, grounds and field maintenance, custodians, painters, electricians, cleaning supplies.

Hmm, all good and solid education expenses. So good and solid I have to wonder why they are passing a new levy to cover them. Shouldn’t they be covered in the regular budget, which runs around $30 million for the General Fund. About $10 million of that comes from District Levies.

That’s what I find frustrating … Superintendent Apostle needs us to pony up this time for $200,000 … to fund basics like supplies, books and improved heating budgets. Just like last election. Just like what seems like every election. Why can’t he learn to live within his budget?

Or does he just like dipping into our wallet every time he can?
Alex Apostle

What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is mine too

I’m reminded every weekend that the Griz play at home – the University doesn’t provide nearly enough parking for all the Griz fans that drive to the game.

But, this last weekend something different happened to me as I parked on the streets in the University district. I found myself behind a vehicle that I recognized – from out on Kona Ranch Road. Yep, they’d driven in from their property (next to the river) where they post and enforce ‘No Parking’ signs. Somehow they feel that it is all right for them to park in front of someone else’s property when they clearly don’t think it is OK for someone else to park in front of theirs.

Of course, this is common. Other than on Griz gameday, you’re not allowed to park in the University District. Nor are you welcome to park in the Grant Creek area if you want to hike up one of the nearby peaks on Forest Service land. And you can completely forget parking along the Blackfoot River Recreation Corridor during the summer since the adjacent landowners have severely limited the number of legal spaces. Even the Costco parking lot seems to be full more times than not and there’s nowhere else to legally park!

If we’re not allowed to park on public streets or roads in so many situations, shouldn’t the attractions be responsible for providing parking? Not only would the University have to build enough parking for all 20,000+ people that drive to Griz games, but MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks would have to buy up land near the Fishing Access Sites and the Forest Service would build some parking near the trailheads.

Of course, if you’re going to do that then we would expect downtown business to equally provide parking for their customers, too. Right? None of this relying upon street parking – if my guests aren’t allowed to park outside of my property, then why should their guests be allowed to park outside their property? Perhaps the East Front Street Parking Structure is for that purpose?

But, wait, apparently asking Macy’s to pay a percentage of the operating &/or maintenance costs could be a deal breaker! Instead, Missoula County Commissioners have unanimously approved designating Missoula County an Economic Recovery Zone to enable private entities, the County, City, and other local governments to access federally subsidized financing. Apparently, the county is going to borrow $8 million dollars and give it to the City to build the structure. And, at the same time the Missoula Downtown Association wants to raise the downtown parking fines. Yep, we’ll be paying four times over for the privilege to park on our downtown streets.

Which begs the question – why do we pay for and build parking for some people in some locations, but not others? Oh, I know: economic development! Sadly, that word is rapidly becoming code – for subsidizing my business at your expense.

Hoteliers want higher taxes

Last night at the Missoula City Council meeting, while we were all waiting for the vote on the zoning update, we were treated to a dog & pony show put on by one of Montana’s biggest economic interest groups. The mainly-government-funded Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), along with a number of hoteliers in town, trotted out their presentation for a Tourism Business Improvement District (Tourism BID). Some would call this a fee, others would say it is corporate welfare, while yet others would it a subsidy. Me? I name it a tax increase.

In a nutshell, every person who stays in a hotel within the City limits would be charged 75c per room per night. That money is then assessed on the Property Tax bill, collected by the City Treasurer, and handed over to the CVB to spend. How the Tourism BID monies are spent is then decided by a Board of 5-7 hoteliers who are appointed by the Mayor (although board members can only be hoteliers).

Unfortunately, this is not a local idea. Not only are we supposedly playing catch up to other tourism markets (Billings, Spokane, etc.), but CVB’s all around the country are pushing this approach. (In fact, the presentation given to City Council last night was based on a state-wide template: How to Lobby for a TBID.) It is sort of like an arms race – because the other guys are doing it, so must we. And according to State law, the local CVB must be the Tourism BID manager. So, it is no surprise that Barbara Neilan, Sage Grendahl, and an assortment of CVB board members (past and present) all urged council to support the idea! Beneficiaries of other Missoula BID’s, such as the Missoula Downtown Association, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, and the like, also came out in support of the model.

I’ve never quite understood why city council has to get involved. If it is such a good idea for development of the tourism industry, then I’m surprised that the tourism businesses don’t get together and form a Tourism Chamber of Commerce, levy a fee on themselves, and go right ahead and market away. Instead, the city has to get involved and force every hotel guest to cough up the dough.

So, what is the money going to be spent on? According to a Missoula CVB brochure, about a quarter of the money will be spent on adding new staff to the CVB with the majority of the rest going towards assorted marketing costs (branding, research, branding, web site optimization (!), and trade shows).

Listening in last night, however, it seems a major concern is the underwriting and sponsorship of events. Maybe they’re talking about events at the MEC (Missoula Events Center), but since that hasn’t yet been built, let alone approved and funded, I guess they can’t say that. Instead, it seemed to boil down to paying organizations to bring sporting events (mainly state high school championships) to Missoula. I wonder if they’ll also be giving money directly to the Women of Faith conference, the NRA regional gun-show, or a gathering, as well?

Nary a whisper last night of who is going to pay for the infrastructure necessitated by all these tourists in our town. If there’s a whole bunch more people driving around town, we’ll need to pave, repair, and plow our streets a bunch more. If all those tourists are downtown eating and drinking their hearts out, then I suppose we might need a few more police to keep an eye on them. And with all those wallets just bursting at the seams with money to spend in the oh-so-cute downtown boutiques, I suspect we’ll see more panhandlers that might then need accommodating for the night. Who is going to pay for all those city services, then? Us, of course.

And that’s the rub. Instead of this tax going into the general city coffers to be divided up as our elected officials see fit, you and I will have no say or influence in how the CVB spends the Tourism BID revenues. As one speaker mentioned last night, how do we know the CVB is the best qualified group to manage and disperse the funds? According to some hoteliers I’ve chatted with, there is no way they would support the Tourism BID if the city council, or even Missoula City, had any control over the Tourism BID funds. They point to what happened to the Statewide Tourism Bed Tax once the state legislature got a hold of it. (Err, instead of it all being spent on tourism advertising, it was also spent on the assets of the state – state parks, historic preservation, historical society, and the Lewis & Clark Bicentennary, etc.)

However, I can perfectly understand why some of the bigger hoteliers like the idea of a Tourism BID. It is a tax that someone else pays (the hotel guest), that someone else enforces (the city), and that they (the industry) gets to spend. Wouldn’t want to trust the voters or their elected officials to do what’s right, would we? I think we could call it taxation without representation.

Who’s gonna pay?

Hoo Boy, I love’s me a City Council Candidate Forum! Them’s candidates just say the dumbest dandiest of things.

Take Kathy Greathouse, candidate to replace Marilyn Marler in Ward 6, who was explaining her dislike of SID’s and other maintenance districts. Last night, Kathy said, “It’s just a tax to cover what the city budget doesn’t cover anymore.”

OK, I’ll admit that I don’t like the nickel and diming approach to paying for our city’s infrastructure. Every time we vote, either directly through the ballot for a mill increase or indirectly through the passage of SIDs by City Council, we are raising our taxes. It’s just that each little piece seems important enough. After all, how else are we going to pay for our fire stations, storm water systems, schools, museums, sidewalks, weed control, street sweeping and such?

Listening to the other ‘conservative’ candidates might help us answer that. According to the Missoulian, John Quandt, a candidate for Ward 3 where Bob Jaffe is the incumbent, isn’t in favor of maintenance districts unless there’s an offset for property owners. I guess that means that non-property owners will pay more!

Furthermore, Quandt suggests another way: community members who care about their neighborhood can volunteer. I know how well that’s going to work out. With our busy, busy lives we’ll now all be out there plowing the streets, teaching our neighbors children, forming a posses to round up the criminals, and giving immunizations at the city health clinics!

Then we throw in Ryan Morton, candidate for Ward 1 against Dave Strohmaier, who says there must be a decrease in general taxes as part of the package. Ward 5 Councilman Dick Haines agrees, saying he would lop $2 million off the city’s budget.

Do you get the pattern? Their vision for the city is no SID’s, an offset of taxes for property owners, and a lowering of general taxes. I don’t think the conservative candidates addressed impact fees (i.e. those who cause the impact should pay), but if they tow the building industry line they’ll be against them. Neither do they talk about local sales tax options, but the Republicans in the last State legislature were against them.

So, boil it all down and no-one should pay! Everyone will like that, right?

Down with government. Bad Government. And these are the people who are asking to run the local government? eek.

What you don’t know can hurt you

The devil is loose in the details. Today, there is an opinion editorial in the Wall Street Journal by Georgetown University School of Law’s constitutional expert, Randy Barnett. Professor Barnett links the tea parties that took place all over the country last week to a need to wind back federal power. In it, he suggests we should

eliminate the federal income tax, after five years, in favor of a national sales or excise tax.

It is an interesting argument, but ultimately one that might prove as muddled as the Tea Parties last week.

As with all changes to the tax code, we must identify who are the winners and who are the losers. So much of our taxation system is a coercive one – encouraging us to do certain things (for which we receive deductions and lower taxes), while punishing us for doing other things (such as extra ‘sin’ taxes on the purchase of cigarettes, alcohol, motor boats, etc.)

Then, with a national sales or excise tax we need to ask to whom this would apply. Will everyone, under all circumstances, pay the same sales tax on all items? As onerous as I find a sales tax on the essentials of life (food, water, clothes, etc.) I don’t think those will be as controversial as some others.

How about a sales or excise tax on the purchase of a house? In many countries this can add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of a place to live. The affordable housing crowd aren’t likely to endorse that.

Can you imagine a sales tax that businesses must pay on every item they purchase? Maybe on office supplies and the office furniture, but I can hear squawks about adding six percent to the cost of large machinery such as a grain harvester or a printing press. All those taxes would, of course, be passed on to the purchaser who would, then, pay a sales tax!

If you exclude businesses from paying a sales or excise tax, then I suspect we will all suddenly develop an entrepreneurial spirit and get business credit cards to use with all our purchases. Perhaps we would no longer own our own homes but rent them from some trust or corporation set up to hold the property on our behalf!

What about hospitals, our churches and other non-profits? Many don’t pay corporate taxes today (since they don’t make a profit), so this would be a direct hit to our health care system, our charities, and the many other groups that are having a particularly hard time in today’s economic climate.

Would foreign countries buying missiles, tanks and other military hardware from U.S. companies, or would we see all those companies suddenly become offshore entities (headquartered in the Bahamas, perhaps?)

And, lastly, would state and local governments be exempt from these sales and excise taxes? Or would they have to raise the income and property taxes in their state to now fund the activities of the federal government?

The more you think about it, the sillier this proposal becomes. Yes, the devil is in the details and until we know them, the better the devil we know than the devil you don’t!

(edited April 24) Our own constitutional expert, Professor Natelson, weighs in with an endorsement of Barnett, as “a staunch friend of freedom”, here.