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Tuesday, June 27, 2017


Last week the voters of Grand Forks – by a slim majority – decided to endorse an economic system that went out of style in America in 1789, with the acceptance of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. When we adopted this brainchild of our best and brightest founders we effectively said "no" to feudalism and the rigid class system it entailed. We said "no" to titles of nobility and special privileges and ranks for the few. Last week Grand Forks took a giant step backward, into the caste system we fought a bloody war in 1775 to end. I am referring to a tax system which gives benefits to a select few – a de jure class system of the upper vs. the lower class.

What is particularly pathetic in this is that the majority of those who voted for "developing" Arbor Park who were not directly cashing in on it, thought they were being forward-looking and sophisticated. They honestly believed they were helping Grand Forks to "grow". Into what, they didn't particularly seem to care; to what purpose, they were apparently unconcerned, and when asked after the fact, they seem at a loss to explain the benefit of a tax-payer subsidized landlord to their own financial status.

There are those who think it viable to subsidize a large employer – say, an auto manufacturer or a paper mill. It is far more obscure to discern a "growth" benefit in funding a condo development to house the well-to-do than it might be to bring in an enterprise to employ the poor. That said, there is no public interest ultimately furthered by any taxpayer-subsidized projects. The short-term benefit for a small number translates to a heavier tax burden on the rest. A viable business that can offer "growth" to a community does not need welfare. There is a reason our property and income taxes remain high. It is because our government at every level is growing larger. For this mirage of short-term benefit we are surrendering a legal and economic system that gives everyone a shot at success.

Voters were conned with a slick ad campaign in which they were fed a glib and empty slogan: "Vote 'no' to grow". Empty because no one is able to explain how anyone's finances or future grows by giving a wealthy consortium a tax-free and bargain basement price advantage over everyone else while demanding taxes from the rest of us, or how a residential building to house wealthy people in the heart of downtown by destroying a park which gives pleasure to all urban dwellers "grows" the local economy.

Presumably the jobs its construction will provide for some trades will dry up within a year or so. This seems an inadequate "benefit" in exchange for 5 years' forgiveness of not only property tax but income taxes on this project!

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, about 500 of the lesser citizens of Grand Forks County were delivered a registered letter by the Sheriff in April, ordering them to pay up their taxes with the back-end hammer that their property – homes and businesses – would be seized and title transferred to the County on October 1, if not. Those taxpayers are NOT in the same class as the developers of the condos displacing Arbor Park. They are in a lower class. They are serfs. The benefactors of this scheme, the developers, certain contractors and presumably the City officials who have been campaigning night and day for this to go forward at all costs – are the feudal lords. "Progress" comes easily to those who are privileged to ride on the backs of the taxpayers. As we morph into a dual-class society we are losing an important element in the success of America – that with a large middle class there is hope for all to achieve. Everyone has the option to improve his lot with the expectation that he can do well. And everyone striving to do well makes for a better community and a better country.

I recall once witnessing a heart-rending scene at a city council meeting years ago. An elderly woman, apparently on her own now, had received notice that her property tax was going up $500. She simply wailed, "Where am I going to get $500?" The room fell silent. What could any of them say? "Next?"

During the recent process one seemingly defensive city official asserted that she "did not appreciate the council's integrity being questioned." If that doesn't sound like the Sheriff of Nottingham, what does? Of course in America it has always been considered proper to question the motives of public servants. That is what democracy means here. Those with a self image of titled nobility who do not want to accommodate that time-honored custom are in the wrong business. They should run for King or God instead of City Council. If you don't want your integrity questioned, don't go into the business of picking "winners" and "losers". The "losers" often aren't convinced.

The experience of the Arbor Park campaign also leaves a sour taste with respect to tactics of the development projects proponents: attempting to manipulate the vote by scheduling it during vacation, not opening the voting to the traditional precinct polling places, dominating or commandeering the media, misrepresenting the project as something guaranteeing "growth". It brings to mind the wisdom of a number of our most brilliant founders, among them Thomas Jefferson, who observed, quite correctly, "When people realize that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic."

And so it is – because there is no way those 500 peasants can assert a right to tax forgiveness. Thus the Republic could be said to have been effectively dissolved by these voters in a move toward providing some special person or persons' "progress" and "growth".

Anyone foolish enough to believe his taxes are not affected by another's exemption from taxes is simply sleepwalking his way to serfdom. We are left with the image of local residents who have worked all their productive lives here, paid off mortgages 30 years ago, paid their taxes for years, and made the mistake of retiring here, facing the prospect of losing their home while some high-end "developers" legally avoid all taxes for a minimum of five years. It makes a mockery of the Fourteenth Amendment. If we are going to give away free tax exemptions, why not hold a lottery and give everyone a fighting chance? Or bestow the favor on someone who genuinely needs it – who may have lost his job, suffered a disabling injury, who has a sick child, resulting in real economic hardship?

Renaissance zones and improper conduct of city business creates a condition that is inherently corrupt and open to various forms and levels of bribery. A good environment for growth, on the other hand, is one in which no one is involved in any sweetheart deals and everyone's taxes are kept low, where appearances are that everything is above-board and there are no special "arrangements" for a few favorites. That is the kind of city that will have real, sustainable growth. With these so-called "renaissance" programs, what legitimate business will want to come in? Only those who hold out for that bribe will come. Grand Forks needs no "renaissance". It needs a level playing field and honesty in government. It needs to put away notions of the aristocracy for good.

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