The other day, an advocate for the homeless asked me why the needs of the most vulnerable citizens always seem to take a back seat to the demands of sports teams, developers, and bright shiny objects like cricket fields. He attributed this state of affairs to animus against the needy, but–as I told him–I don’t think that’s it. It’s just that politicians respond to pressure from people who show up–people who contact them, who vote and especially people who donate.
The problem we face when allocating public resources is that very few of us who benefit from inequities that unfairly burden others are willing to graciously concede those advantages. It’s too easy to convince ourselves that we are entitled to them.
When the Indiana Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that the system that had yielded grossly unequal property tax assessments for years had to be fixed, the homeowners who had benefitted from artificially low assessments–and whose taxes had accordingly been lower than those of folks with far less valuable properties–screamed bloody murder. Rather than sheepishly acknowledging that they’d made out like bandits for years, and that perhaps it was time to pay their fair shares, they saw themselves as victims of a rapacious government and took their revenge by ousting a hapless Mayor who’d had nothing to do with that particular decision.
Fast forward to Mayor Ballard’s proposed budget.
I’ve not been a fan of this Mayor, but his proposed equalization of the tax rate for IMPD is both fair and overdue. For decades, center city folks were taxed to support both the sheriff’s department (which has county-wide jurisdiction) and IPD (which patrolled only the old city limits). When the two departments were combined into IMPD, apparently the tax rates were not adjusted accordingly. As a result, those residing within the old city limits continued to pay more for police protection than those living outside those limits. As I understand it, Ballard’s proposal would equalize the tax and end what has effectively been an unfair subsidy of some citizens by others–and those who’ve benefitted are (predictably) whining about having to pay their fair share.
Since this post is likely to make me even more unpopular than I already am, I will add that I also support the Mayor’s proposal to eliminate the homestead credit in order to pay for the addition of desperately needed police.
Would I prefer that we shift funds from cricket fields and sports teams and too-generous subsidies to the Mayor’s developer buddies instead? Of course. Is that likely to happen? Not in my lifetime. Let’s recognize that politics is the art of the possible, and address our public safety deficit before crime rates that approach Detroit’s undermine every other thing we are trying to do in our city.
Speaking of homestead credits, we really should invest in efforts to ameliorate the plight of the people who don’t have a homestead. There are steps we could take now that would actually save tax dollars in the long run.
But we probably won’t because they don’t scream and vote, and they aren’t in a position to make campaign contributions. And because, to our politicians, the “long run” is the next election.