Let it fall apart then

A quick aside on our off day (we normally publish here on Monday, Wednesday and Friday)...

A response I received to yesterday's essay on the assessment process was anticipated and all too predictable. It went something like this:

If the city just lets the road go bad, then the property will lose value. Assessing the improvements maintains the value they have.

I can see how this is comforting for some public officials. There are two big problems with it.

First, nearly all taxpayers believe they are paying the local government taxes and fees to maintain infrastructure. Ask any taxpayer what local governments do and they will say police/fire, roads/streets and elections. When local governments go back to taxpayers and explain that their taxes don't cover even a fraction of the cost of fixing their street, sewer pipe or water service and that the property owner needs to pay more through an assessment for those basic services, it is generally not a pleasant conversation. This is a problem we either avoid or gloss over with new growth, but understand, this is not a revenue problem. It is a communications problem.

Second, while the "let it rot" approach is clever, that is not how the constitution is written. Local governments can't say, "If we don't maintain the street, your property will be worth much less, so let us just assess you the cost to keep that from happening." Let me give you an analogy.

Let's say the city needs to dispose of road kill. They come to you and say, "We are going to designate the ditch in front of your house our road kill disposal site. We realize that will lower the value of your property -- yes -- so, if you are inclined to pay a little extra for proper disposal of these unfortunate critters, we can put them somewhere else."

If you don't give us money, we'll let something bad happen to you. There's a word for that. It's called extortion. Here's a definition:

The crime of obtaining money or some other thing of value by the abuse of one's office or authority.

Public officials need to take some really urgent steps, actions we outline in our Curbside Chat manual. They need to get off the Ponzi scheme and stop digging their financial hole deeper. They need to do an accounting of all of their liabilities and obligations, a REAL capital improvements plan so-to-speak. Then, when they know where their ledger sits and the extent of their shortfall, they need to have an informed, intelligent and respectful community conversation about what to do.

Pretending there is no problem -- or worse, getting mad at me for pointing out this ubiquitous scam -- is not a valid substitute for real leadership. If the court, in this case or a subsequent case, reigns in municipal abuse of the assessment process, there will be clawing and gnashing of teeth in city halls across the country. Better to come clean today and let your people know the truth.

Trust me, they can handle it. In fact, they are waiting for you to do it.