I went to the debate on the proposal to thaw the property tax freeze last Wednesday, September 16th, 2015. The debate was sponsored by the Columbus GOP and was held at the Hilton Garden. Mayor Teresa Tomlinson argued in favor of thawing the freeze and former state senator Seth Harp argued for maintaining the status quo. It lasted about an hour and a half. There was a lot of information in a fairly brief period of time. I took my usual copious notes. In preparing to write this blog, I admit that I got lost in the weeds, as a wonk will sometimes do. I combed through the debate word by word, checking facts, doing math, trying to make sense of confusing analogies. And then it dawned on me; bright, illuminating dawn. I was totally over thinking what the question before us is at this moment in time. And frankly, it couldn’t possibly be simpler.
Mayor Tomlinson was on point with a lot of facts and data to support the proposal she has spent the last 5 years developing. It is a lot of information, and it takes a minute to begin getting your arms around it. Seth Harp’s argument seemed much less fact-based and more emotional, he tried to explain his position through an analogy using fictional Columbus residents, the Smiths and the Jones. It was a very confusing analogy. And I admit that over the last few days, I probably spent way more time trying to make sense of it than I should have.
And then the epiphany struck me. At this point in time, none of that stuff really matters. Because the question before us as a community is, should the citizens have a voice in deciding our future or not? Right now, it is completely up to Columbus City Council whether or not the citizens of Columbus should have the opportunity to educate themselves on both sides of the argument, and let their voices be heard at the ballot box in November, 2016. Council will make that decision fairly soon.
Former state senator Seth Harp says no. He says the citizens of Columbus voted the tax freeze in 33 years ago, and chose not to fully repeal it 24 years ago, so case closed. The citizens of Columbus should never, ever have the opportunity to re-evaluate something as fundamental as the way we choose to fund our government. As if democracy has an expiration date. As Mr. Harp put it during the debate, “How many times do you have to be told no?”
Well, Mr. Harp. I will be 50 years old in a couple of short weeks. In 1982, I was a senior at Shaw High School. I didn’t get the opportunity to vote on that property tax freeze way back then. I did get to vote on the total repeal in 1991. but even that was a lifetime ago when I was 26. I imagine a lot of voters in Columbus share that with me. Even if a citizen lived in Columbus all of their life, they’d still have to be 42 or older to have ever had a vote on the freeze at all.
Sooo….here we are in a new century. Here we are in a world where we have just experienced one of the most volatile real estate markets in decades. Don’t we Columbus residents deserve an opportunity to make decisions about not only our current situation, but our future and our children’s future? Your generation just told us how it is going to be, and we have to live with it? Into PERPETUITY? We don’t even get a chance to vote on a proposal we’ve NEVER had the opportunity to vote on before? Does anyone else in Columbus want to live with financial decisions that were made FOR you when you were 17 and 26?
As Mayor Tomlinson pointed out during the debate, a former chairman of the Republican Party like Mr. Harp, the SAME party that has voted over 80 times to repeal Obamacare, saying that we voters shouldn’t have the same privilege to revisit legislation is rich irony. An irony too rich to swallow, I’m afraid.
There was something about what Mr. Harp said the other night, and the way he said it, that lingered with me. At first I just thought it must be the pride of ownership that Mr. Harp surely feels for the freeze, after all he was one of its architects. But that wasn’t quite it. It was something that nagged at me like a bad memory I couldn’t quite bring to the surface. It took me a couple of days, and about three fingers of scotch, to figure out what it was.
Mr. Harp isn’t just proud of what he did in Columbus in 1982. He *IS* Columbus in 1982. He kept talking about experts from out-of-town, even though many of the experts cited were from our own university. His 1982 Columbus didn’t have experts, so the fact that we have them in 2015 just eludes him. He kept talking about lawyers from out-of-town and evil tax assessors, and about how we needed to fear strangers with books and fountain pens. Fountain pens, for God’s sake. 1982 Columbus was insular and suspicious of outsiders. We were a sleepy, backwater town, and we liked it that way. Our river was dammed up and so were we. We had declined to have Interstate 85 come through Columbus, and the 185 spur was yet to be completed in 1984. In 2015 Columbus, our river runs free and we have tourists roaming our streets. We are connected to our world, not hiding away from it. Yes, Mr. Harp *is* 1982 Columbus. But *I* want to be the Columbus of tomorrow, not yesterday.
There was also one moment of unvarnished truth at the end of the debate that has been stuck in my brain. When asked what Columbus will do should Mayor Tomlinson’s proposal fail, Seth Harp said the following without skipping a beat, “I think what they’re going to have to do is figure out other ways to raise taxes.” Even though Mayor Tomlinson’s proposal will provide a sizable tax break for many property owners in Columbus, and will protect the pact with those that currently *have* the freeze, in that unguarded moment he admitted that we have a revenue problem that must be addressed. And he doesn’t have any idea what we will do if we maintain the status quo. “I think what they’re going to have to do is figure out other ways to raise taxes.” You could literally hear the Republicans in the room gasp. He spent the next 2 minutes trying to back pedal from the truth he had inadvertently blurted out. It wasn’t pretty. To me, this was the most profound moment in the debate to illustrate why we should be allowed to have a community dialogue about this proposal, the status quo, and how we move forward.
Mayor Tomlinson is simply asking for a vote. Mayor Tomlinson simply wants the citizens of Columbus to have plenty of time to study the issue, and an opportunity to cast an up or down vote. She is asking the citizens of Columbus to join her in requesting that City Council give us that chance.
I am answering her call.
City Council, please allow the voice of our citizens to be heard on this issue that is so critical for our community. Please allow the thousands of citizens whose voice has NEVER been heard on this issue an opportunity to cast a vote. Please allow us the opportunity to vote on a proposal NONE of us have ever had the opportunity to cast a vote for or against. Please allow us the time and opportunity to study the options before us, the time to gain understanding about how our city finances work, and the time to evaluate what is needed for our city to provide the services we all require as we grow into the 21st century.
Please join me in prevailing upon City Council to hear the voice of the people. Join me in fighting for democracy on its most basic level.
Put it on the ballot, Council. Put it on the ballot.
Peace and Love Yall,
PS – If you would like to watch the debate for yourself, something I highly recommend, here is a video of the entire event: