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Archive for February, 2006

An open letter to the Citizens of Phoenix: Why I oppose the bonds

If you drive through my neighborhood of North Central Phoenix, you’ll see plenty of little signs entreating you to support the seven proposed bond issues to be put to a vote in the March 14 election. But if you drive through other neighborhoods of the city, you’ll see few if any signs. Supporters and opponents will have planted huge placards at major intersections, but you’ll see the little yard signs – “Support the Bonds” – only in the most prosperous of neighborhoods.

This little datum actually tells you all you need to know about the bond campaign: In large measure, it is welfare for the rich.

I’m not playing a class-envy card. I despise welfare in all its forms. I can sympathize with the plight of the poor, and I can even volunteer my time and my money to help them. But I think it is vile to use force to steal wealth from honest, innocent producers in order to confer it upon people who have not earned it. But if this is vicious and wrong when done for benefit of the poor, how much worse is it when the recipients are among the wealthiest of the city’s residents?

The actual purpose of the bond issue – and of the Trolley and of the recidivist reconstruction of the Civic Center and of all the other so-called ‘investments’ downtown – is to provide free upscale amenities for the use and enjoyment of rich Phoenicians and their out-of-town visitors. There are miserly little bribes to other constituencies beneath the vast Christmas tree of bond programs, but the overwhelming amount of money will be spent to amuse and enrich people who are already laughing all the way to the bank.

Almost a year ago, I wrote about how these corrupt ‘investments’ are carefully target-marketed to the most corruptible kind of investors. And this is the first and biggest benefit to the rich of the bond issues: The bonds themselves. They will be underwritten by a politically-connected investment firm, and they will be purchased by politically-wired investors. Even though the city’s property tax receipts will surge this year, making it possible to pay for any improvements that are actually needed out of the general budget, we will still issue bonds, paying massive amounts of interest over the years to people who are already very, very wealthy.

But Christmas will come twice for prosperous Phoenicians. Take a drive by the Herberger Theater some night. It’s a colossal failure as a theatre, but it’s an excellent place for rich matrons to show off their thousand-dollar gowns. When you look at your property tax bill – which is probably up 25% or more – take solace that you’ll be subsidizing the Herberger to the tune of $16.7 million – plus tens of millions more in interest.

There’s money for the Arizona Opera, another outrageous failure, and for the zoo and the art museum and for Phoenix Theatre – because you can’t have too many under-attended taxpayer-subsidized theater companies.

Add to this all the money to be blown building downtown campuses for Arizona State University and the University of Arizona. These are completely redundant facilities, of course. What’s worse, the state’s universities are actually the responsibility of the state government – which is running a billion-dollar surplus. But why should the state pay when the city of Phoenix is willing to milk its own taxpayers in the state’s behalf?

But why should the taxpayers of Phoenix strap themselves with $878.5 million in debt, plus as much as $2 billion more in interest over the years, to build these campuses? For the same reason the taxpayers were saddled with the costs of every other ‘investment’ downtown: In order to provide free upscale amenities for the rich.

It gets better, though: The city hopes that, this time, it will achieve critical mass downtown. It is hoped that by coercing thousands of students to live in downtown Phoenix – won’t their parents love that? – the central core of the city will finally come to life, an ungainly, undead Frankenstein stuffed full of tax dollars.

Incidentally, this is why the Trolley runs to ASU. The greatest concentrations of adult bus passengers in the city are in Sunnyslope and South Phoenix. A transit system designed to move the greatest number of passengers would run straight down Central Avenue from Dunlap Road to Baseline Road. But we can’t have that. For one thing, that would run the Trolley right past all those gorgeous multi-million-dollar homes, each one sporting a “Support the Bonds” sign. For another, by forcing ASU students to come downtown, then sending them back to Tempe at least once a day for their core-curriculum classes, the Trolley will seem to be working, even though, by Valley Metro’s own estimates, it will be yet another colossal failure, with the taxpayers paying huge subsidies for each rider – and even bigger subsidies for each ASU student on the train. But those students will be young, attractive and nice-smelling, which will be very pleasing to all the wealthy residents and their guests, who may ride the Trolley on a lark, but who will never use it for day-to-day transportation.

Incidentally yet again, the Trolley and everything that goes with it are buttressed by a Transit-Oriented Development zoning overlay. Small business-people all along the route of the Trolley are slowly discovering that one of the purposes of Trolley construction is to kill their businesses. As profitable as those businesses might have been, and as popular with their clients, they are not pretty enough to appeal to the sensibilities of Yuppies, the Bohemian Bourgeoisie and the avidly-courted Creative Class. The Trolley’s construction will bankrupt the small firms that had done business along its route, and the Transit-Oriented Development zoning overlay will forbid anything similar from replacing them. This is in essence a hidden tax enacted by these so-called ‘investments’, the deliberate destruction of profit-making businesses – along with an epidemic confiscation of taxable commercial real estate.

And incidentally one more time, downtown Phoenix will never work. It will always be a colossal failure, soaking up tax dollars to subsidize the existing ‘investments’ and to fund ever-newer boondoggles, each one of which will be promoted as the final answer to all the problems downtown, each one of which will fail in its turn, soaking up tax subsidies forever. The downtowns of the cities we think of as having a downtown – cities like New York or San Francisco, London or Rome – the central cores of those cities developed when transportation was very costly. A city like Phoenix, which developed when transportation was cheap and progressively cheaper, can never have that kind of throbbing, vibrant, population-packed downtown. Never. No matter how much money we throw away on the Trolley or the Civic Center or the chimerical bio-medical bonanza.

Here are some secrets you will never see reported anywhere: Every city in America with a chip on its shoulder is building that paragon of 19th century technology, a Trolley system. Every city with something to prove is building and rebuilding and rebuilding a vast, empty convention center. Every city with an inferiority complex plans to buy its way to greatness by throwing billions of dollars in corporate welfare at the biotech industry – since, as we all know, the most consistently successful venture capitalists are politicians and newspaper columnists. Phoenix is not innovative in any way, not even in its choices of doomed downtown ‘investments’.

A self-selected minority of people may long for life in a make-believe-Manhattan, but, in reality, there will never be a dense-enough concentration of them to yield even a chintz-Cincinnati. The closest thing there is in Phoenix to an actual downtown – a walkable concentration of high-commerce, retail and residential skyscrapers – is the area around the Biltmore Fashion Square. The city is doing what it can to destroy this, to protect its futile vision downtown. But even more urban than the Biltmore is downtown Tempe, a pretend-Paris the Phoenix City Council is having a harder time trying to vanquish – although it is trying.

And there’s more. All of this, the giveaways to the very wealthy, the redundant college campuses, the destruction of existing businesses, the war on non-taxpayer-subsidized vertical development in other locations – even the improvements to the sewers and fire stations, the true business of city government – all of it will entail the letting of thousands of lucrative contracts to politically-favored developers, vendors, attorneys, consultants – an endless soup-line of mendicants in $900 suits. Where do those folks live? Amazingly enough, they live in the same neighborhoods where you see all the little “Support the Bonds” signs. The neighborhoods where the Trolley will never run. The neighborhoods where the bus-stops – if any – have no overhead shelters.

Bond supporters are ready with talking points for every objection an opponent might raise. No tax increase, 700 participants, the sacred deity that is public education, blah, blah, blah. None of that matters. Every proper function of city government can be more than adequately funded from the impending property tax windfall. The city has no business building colleges or subsidizing the diversions of millionaires. Of course, if the bonds fail, this will be offered as the reason why downtown failed. Take heart: Downtown will fail anyway, and the downtown boondogglers will never admit it. Why should they? It’s making them rich.

“Cui bono?,” the Roman poet Juvenal asks? Who benefits? As Thoreau reminds us: “That government is best which governs least.” The absolute best thing the City Council can do for you and for the city is to get out of your way – and out of your wallet. But who will benefit from this billion-dollar bond boondoggle? If you have to look at your bank balance before you write a check, it isn’t you.

I voted by mail, so I’ve already voted “No” on all seven bond proposals. I encourage you to do the same.

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