A lot of what I talk about here is somewhat abstract, but this story is very close to home for me. Literally. I want to tell you why my taxes are about to go up for the city where I live to buy a shopping center a few blocks away from me.
I live in a nice middle class suburb of Birmingham called Trussville. Until not too long ago, Trussville was far enough out in the sticks to be its own little world, but with the growth of Birmingham, it’s become just another little suburb for the larger metro area. In the process, it’s gone from a sleepy little semi-rural town to a little city with hopes — some would say pretensions — of being an upper-scale city with upper-scale shopping and upper-scale residential developments. In general, that’s what has been happening. New shopping areas have been built. New residential developments have been built. Property values have gone up. The school system is proud of its high test scores. And some residents seem to think they’re far too good to have a thrift store in their town.
There’s a shopping center a few blocks from me that used to be anchored by a Food World store. You can still see the outlines of the name on the front, even though the sign was taken down when some stores in the chain were shut down as a part of a business restructuring. That store was the newest and nicest grocery store in town when I moved here 20 years ago. Since then, though, much newer and nicer competition had moved into the area, so the store had gone down hill. It’s a very typical story.
So when the store closed, the shopping center looked pretty dead and nobody knew what might open there, especially in the current retail climate. And then the news leaked out that a thrift store was about to announce it was opening a branch in this little upscale mecca. Some of the locals were not the least bit happy.
Nobody ever quite said why it was a bad thing for a thrift store to open. I thought it sounded like a good place to get a bargain on junk I might otherwise buy new somewhere else. But the people who get horrified about such things got horrified and started raising a stink about it. (Watch the video at that link to hear a woman tell the City Council that it’s a “personal” matter, while the rest of the horrified people cheer her comment.)
It turned out that there was nothing in the city’s zoning that could stop a thrift store from opening, so the city couldn’t stop it that way. The people who were upset — led now by the mayor and City Council members who were hearing that nobody wanted this thing in their city — talked a lot about preserving the “historic” character of our little downtown area. If by “historic,” they meant “old and sort of dilapidated,” I guess they had a little bit of a point, but there’s — quite frankly — nothing historic about it and nothing worth preserving. (Here’s a picture of Lucy on one of our late-night walks watching traffic from a historic sidewalk.) It was purely an excuse to keep out of town the sort of store they thought they were too good to live next to. And the unspoken subtext was always about the sort of “undesirable” people who might be attracted to shop at the store.
It was in this climate of semi-hysteria that the city announced a deal a couple of months back. The city had an agreement with the shopping center owner and the thrift store. The city would buy the entire (dying) shopping center and pay the thrift store $250,000 cash just to go away. (As part of the deal, the thrift store can open in another location in eight months, but that gives the city eight months to figure out some legal way to zone it out.)
The entire deal is costing taxpayers of my little town $5.6 million. The mayor has said he plans to increase our sales tax from 9 percent to 9.5 percent to pay for the deal. The contracts have all been signed — with unanimous approval from the City Council — and the deal will be closing any time now.
So here’s how I see the score. The thrift store came out a winner, because the taxpayers of Trussville handed it a quarter of a million dollars — for absolutely nothing. The shopping center owner came out a winner, because it was able to sell a decaying little strip center without much of a future — when commercial real estate all over the country is suffering. The folks who want to think they live in an upscale community that’s too good for thrift stores came out as winners, because they got their way. The only people in this deal who come out as losers are the rest of us — those who buy things in Trussville — because we’re going to have to pay more money in order for a small vocal group of people to get their way.
The standard statist response to a case such as this is that if the majority don’t like this action, they’ll be able to make the politicians pay a price at the next election. There are two problems with this.
First, this is a case in which a tiny minority care deeply about an issue, but the price paid by everyone is going to be so small as to make it a battle not worth fighting. Every time I spend $10 at a Trussville store or restaurant, I’ll pay an extra 5 cents, so the increase isn’t enough for me to go to a huge effort to fight. But over the years, small increases such as this add up. When I was a kid, sales taxes in Alabama were typically in the 5 percent range. Today, they’re in the range of 9-10 percent. So not only does the amount of tax paid go up as retail prices go up, but the rate we’re paying as sales tax has doubled — so if prices have doubled over the period, the amount of tax paid is now four times what it once was. If it happens slowly enough, few people fight the “good things” it’s going to pay for, but the rate almost never comes back down.
Second, whether the extra amount we’re paying is small or large, we’re stuck paying for something whether we want to or not. The whole notion of majoritarian systems means that I have no choice about it. There’s no place for me to move where the rules are defined in advance. Under our majoritarian system, the rules can change rapidly — and there’s not a thing in the world that the rest of us can do about it.
I don’t want to pay for this shopping center, but I have no choice in the matter. My neighbors don’t, either. We’re stuck paying the bill for what a small group of noisy people demanded.
So what’s the answer? Some people would say that we should have blanket rules that a city can’t interfere in commerce in any way. Others would say that it’s OK to interfere in certain ways through zoning, but that’s all. Still others — such as the people who wanted this deal — would want the power to control everything.
Which one is right? What if they’re all right? What if we had a system by which different areas could be established according to different rules — so that we’re not all stuck living under the same set of rules?
That’s the future I want, one where we get to choose the system under which we live. We don’t have that right now, because our system is “one size fits all.” We can all be more likely to get what we want, but the world is going to have to change in some key ways to allow the freedom to experiment with different systems.
Until then, people like me are stuck paying for a shopping center I don’t want to pay for. Our “one size fits all” political system doesn’t give us the freedom or the choice that the civics books pretend it does. I’d like that to change.