The Norfolk City Manager recently proposed an almost 9% property tax increase as an attempt to provide additional money for schools and raises for city employees among other things.
These are needed and I don’t oppose them. Because I believe the biggest driver (or weight) on our collective well being is the condition of our schools, city services and environment. Yet over the past few decades, these have clearly not been the priority of our elected representatives.
Yes, the argument I make below is about money. But it’s also about the focus, attention and energy of our leadership. All of which have been squarely centered on the condition of downtown and serving special interests for many years. It’s time for change on all these fronts.
One doesn’t need to listen all that hard to hear the steady drum beat of pro-development advocates in our city and their champions on the city council. But when one looks at the results, it often seems more like a siren’s call. Their arguments are usually something like “it’s an investment” and “it will pay for itself” or “we just need to do more.” But reality is quite often a different story. If these things are actually working towards their purported goals of lifting the city as a whole, why are property owners being asked to pay higher taxes for the second time in 5 years?
So this time around, I hope the citizens of Norfolk can get something in return besides more promises of economic growth. We need concrete promises from our elected officials (ones I know they’re unlikely to give) that the city’s days of subsidizing the wealthiest and most connected – and their pet projects downtown – are over. That new development projects will be required to stand on their own merit, not the backs of residents or our unsuspecting visitors.
The subsidized development playbook utilized in Norfolk for decades is not unique to our city. But in our attempts to compete with nearby cities and even other regions, it has brought real costs but mostly hypothetical benefits. Our collective memory is usually short and most people don’t have time or expertise to evaluate long-term performance of government projects. But we can see when things get built. So it’s not hard to see the allure for politicians.
Problems involving poverty, violence and education that persist in our city are difficult with no single answer. It’s much easier to put up a tourist attraction or build a train and say, “See, we’re doing something, just trust us.” Whether these projects actually ever pay off, something got done. Yay!
Which makes it easier for proponents to push the next project, whether it’s redeveloping another entertainment destination, or this mall, or that shopping center, or paying companies with a track record of peddling jobs that don’t last unless more tribute is given down the road. They say these will be all the things the city needs to finally ease the financial burden placed on average people in the city.
But I don’t believe the hype anymore. Because here we are again, facing renewed demand for more millions, to replace other millions used to subsidize ephemeral promises. And now cue the cry that my argument doesn’t fully account for the legal intricacies of the situation. That the funds for city subsidies of developers are from different sources, set aside for these purposes. But I’m not debating how the laws are currently written. Rather, why they were written that way in the first place, what is their actual benefit to the city and what we can do to change them in the future if they’re not working.
Because based on the results of the last 30 years of giveaways and government financed economic development in Norfolk coupled with another pending tax increase, I wonder: “When will it ever be enough?”