The folks who live in Indianapolis’ suburbs are a lot like the kid who moved back into his parents’ basement after college, and despite having a job, doesn’t pay rent or contribute to the grocery money, so he has money to spend on a snazzy new car and vacations.
More than 180,000 suburban residents drive into Indy to work every day. Approximately 50,000 drive out to jobs located in the suburbs. That means we have a 130,000 net influx of people who regularly drive on streets paid for by Indianapolis taxpayers, rely on police protection furnished by Indianapolis taxpayers, flush toilets into sewers paid for by Indianapolis ratepayers…all without paying a penny for those services.
It isn’t just the people who drive into the city to work. Residents of the collar counties have easy access to Indy’s arts, sporting and cultural events and other urban amenities that improve their quality of life without affecting their property taxes. At least in those cases, nonresidents are patronizing important activities–and when they eat a meal in a downtown restaurant, they do pay a small surtax. Commuting contributes nothing.
Indianapolis business and political leaders have talked about imposing a commuter tax for at least thirty years. We discussed it when I was in City Hall. It hasn’t happened–hasn’t even been seriously pursued, to the best of my knowledge. The politically cynical and criminally shortsighted decision to include property tax caps in the state constitution may change that.
Local governments are starved for revenue. We don’t have the money to hire enough police, to maintain public parks, to pave streets and build sidewalks. Important public amenities like the canal are being allowed to deteriorate. The Mayor is trying to cope by selling off public assets–a “penny-wise, pound-foolish” effort that trades up-front money for long-term income streams and shortchanges our childrens’ futures.
Indiana does not have real home rule. Indianapolis lacks the legal authority to raise property taxes. We have to look elsewhere if we are to invest in our public infrastructure and keep our city from going the way of Detroit. We are rapidly running out of public assets to sell off. The logical thing to do is to levy a commuter tax–to insist that the people using our public services pay something toward their maintenance.
Mayor Hudnut used to warn against allowing the city to become a “doughnut” with a hole in the middle. Civic health, he insisted, required patterning ourselves after a “cookie,” solid clear through. Without sufficient revenue, all those suburban residents who depend upon Indianapolis for their employment and quality of life will find their property values diminished along with their job prospects.
It’s time to charge that kid in the basement some rent.