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Summer 1993
City Journal Summer 1993.
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Letting Government Off the Hook
Adam P. Glick
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Imagine, if you will, that your son returns home from school with a note from the teacher that reads: “Although Johnny seems to have the ability to handle the material, his poor homework indicates that he lacks the discipline necessary to complete the course. Without a change, he will fail.” Do you:

    A) Discipline Johnny?
    B) Explain to Johnny the importance and rewards of hard work?
    C) Make sure that Johnny studies for at least an hour before going out to play?
    D) Do Johnny’s homework for him?

If you have ever supported the Central Park Conservancy, the Association for a Better New York, the New York City Partnership, the Grand Central Partnership, or the Friends of the Pothole on 96th and Third, you have, in effect, already chosen answer “D.” Private associations whose missions entail performing what should be governmental functions essentially do government’s homework. They are dangerous.

The Central Park Conservancy is an excellent example of why this is so. New York City knows that the effects of cutting the Parks Department budget will be ameliorated by the Conservancy’s strong private support. So the city simply abrogates its responsibility for keeping the park clean and allocates its resources elsewhere. This, of course, is the exact opposite of the way government is supposed to work. Governments are supposed to employ their resources for endeavors that its citizens support, not those they don’t.

The Conservancy will argue that this is not the case because the city has agreed to continue giving Central Park the same share of the Parks Department’s budget it was getting in the past. The problem with this is twofold. First, it gives a small group of wealthy individuals the power to dictate how funds are allocated within a city department’s budget. Second, no part of this agreement prohibits the city from simply lowering the entire Parks Department budget.

And this is exactly what has happened. Since 1989, the Parks Department’s budget has been slashed 32 percent in real terms. No other department has been cut anywhere near this level. Parks spending now stands at a paltry 0.44 percent of the total city budget, by far the lowest in the United States. And it has happened because of, rather than in spite of, public support.

Another wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing is the business improvement district. This is a private organization through which the same building owners and corporations that complain incessantly that taxes are too high tax themselves even more, in order to take care of problems that the city ignores. They hire their own sanitation workers and security guards to make sure that their private turf is kept clean and safe. That business improvement districts are sprouting up all over the city is due less to the fact that they are a good idea than to the dismal condition of our city streets.

Business improvement districts are a mistake because they allow wealthy owners to opt out of the political process. If a property owner can assure himself that his own interests will be taken care of, how important will it be to him that the rest of the city is maintained properly? A member of a business improvement district who has voluntarily agreed to increase his taxes cannot then become part of the dialogue about appropriate levels of government spending.

The problem is not price, but service. Individuals are fleeing our city not only because their taxes arc so high, but because they receive so little in return. High taxes would be tolerated if they were used to pay for an excellent school system, clean streets, safe parks, and efficient and hygienic public transportation. (This, in fact, was the case historically.) But when there is no bang for the buck, high taxes become unacceptable.

Business improvement districts and private associations such as the Central Park Conservancy allow municipal governments to ignore essential services, while spending billions on social programs the public doesn’t support. More importantly, they keep the tax dialogue narrowly focused on how high taxes are, instead of on how they are spent.

Is it any wonder Johnny can’t read?

 

 


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