David Rodeback's Blog

Local Politics and Culture, National Politics,
Life Among the Mormons, and Other Stuff

Normal Version

Wednesday, August 9, 2006
Last Night's Budget and Tax Hearing in American Fork

The difference in public demeanor was night and day between last night's tax and budget hearing and the recent town meetings on the same subjects. It was an evening to be grateful for representative government, as opposed to direct democracy, and for being governed at least for a while by intelligent adults.

Having already held two town meetings which were not required by law, the American Fork City Council convened the legally mandated hearing on the proposed property tax rate increase last evening at 6:00 p.m., before its regular meeting at 7:30 p.m.

It was standing room only, and I was standing, so my actual notes are minimal. I could not provide a play-by-play if I wanted to, and I really don't want to. It would not be very interesting except to policy wonks -- you had to be there -- and a lot of it would make little sense, as it did if you were there. In any case, here I offer only highlights and impressions. To wit . . .

The Bad and the Ugly

At the town meetings, the public was well-informed, well-behaved, and intelligent. At last evening's hearing, some residents fit that description. But others were rude, belligerent, and, frankly, ignorant -- as in, they were either unwilling or unable to comprehend anything beyond the fact that their taxes were about to increase.

It was as good an illustration as you'll see of the reason why we have and need a representive form of government (the people elect representatives), not direct democracy (the people vote on everything). It wasn't just that the malcontents hadn't been to any previous meetings. It was that they clearly hadn't bothered to learn anything substantial about how local government works, or about American Fork's current circumstances or how they came about. Nor had they put themselves in a position to notice that the current administration is qualitatively different from the previous one. In fact, many of the residents in the meeting actually seemed unwilling to learn what they could have learned right there in the meeting. It never seemed to dawn on them that the current officials had worked very hard on the matter for a long time, and that spending such time and effort might might also make their views worth hearing and considering. These leaders generally do their homework conscientiously, listen to input, and make difficult decisions when they have to, rather than putting them off for others to make in future years. I applaud them. I applaud the residents themselves for attending, if not for their deportment.

Granted, the Mayor's presentation did not make it easy for them to understand certain things. He used what appeared to be the same marginally adequate PowerPoint presentation as in the town meetings, but with much different results because of the different audience. At least twenty minutes of angry, frustrated public comments could have been averted had he begun with a clear, perhaps once- or twice-repeated explanation of the certified tax rate (CTR) -- complete with clear graphics and maybe even a good handout, of course. (I attempt just such an explanation of the certified tax rate elsewhere.) Much of the other anger and frustration might have been averted if clear slides had been prepared to help him answer three or four very predictable concerns.

Granted, I expect too much; I've proven that many times here at the blog. But in the political world where I have labored from time to time, proper staff work (the link is to a previous post) prevents a lot of these troubles.

It's entirely possible that most of the crowd would have been unmoved even if the explanations had surpassed the clearest, most insightful day of Economics 101 ever held. (Actually, government finance is probably more like 201.) But I fear that, as far as the thoughtful, reasonable residents in the room were concerned, the City left a lot of credibility on the table unnecessarily. This is particularly unfortunate in light of the upcoming water bond election, where credibility will be a major factor in the outcome.

The Good -- In Fact, the Very Good

These criticisms notwithstanding, the Mayor's performance -- and the Council's, to the extent it was involved -- was magnificent and classy in some important respects. The simple fact of the matter is that they have inherited the fruits of years of mismanagement, and they are now taking the heat for it, because they're trying to fix the problems. (Councilman Rick Storrs illustrated this very effectively, but diplomatically, near the end of the meeting.) This makes the public rancor directed at the present administration unjust, though still understandable. A lesser man than Mayor Thompson would have pointed fingers clearly at the past administration, and he could have been positively scathing in the process. Instead, he took the previous mayor's 90-minute beating amicably, as if it were his own, and remained calm, cool, and collected. (It's not the first such beating he has taken calmly, and I'm sure there will be more to come.) Moreover, he clearly went out of his way to hear and understand even the most bizarre and inscrutable public comments, and he extended the hearing beyond its scheduled end, until everyone had essentially had his or her say. (Except me, that is. I remained silent, for a change. I'm having my say now.)

We're not accustomed to this level of leadership in American Fork, but I could get used to it.

Near the end of the hearing, some of the residents urged the Mayor to ask for a straw poll of those present. He declined, which was probably wise. The points were made that it was not a reliable cross section of American Fork residents at large -- so it would be merely inflammatory, not useful -- and that the people elected the Council to vote on these things.

I was actually hoping he'd do it, though, so I could raise my hand in support of the increase and see how many others did the same. Another motive for wanting that was a little childish: I wanted to see how the frustrated, cynical, outspoken malcontent next to me would react to that. I did not doubt that he is an excellent, congenial fellow, when not under the duress of such a meeting . . . but I still hoped to tweak him a little.

Parting Shots, er, Thoughts

Here are a few final, quick thoughts:

  • It's not news any more, but the County increased assessed property values in American Fork by 22 percent in the aggregate this year. (Some went down, some went up much more than that.)
  • Some complained that they don't have any more money than they did before their valuations went up, even if their property is worth more and their taxes are correspondingly higher. Perhaps that's true, in terms of liquid cash, but in fact if their property is more valuable, they have more wealth, as in assets or equity, whatever you choose to call it.
  • There's a big fuss about the sad state of math education in the Alpine School District now, as there should be. But if I were to judge by last night's crowd, our math education troubles reach back much further into the past than The Emperor's New Math.
  • PowerPoint slides with numbers or text on them should be readable from the back of the room.
  • A lot of the residents present seemed inclined to blame the City for their entire tax burden, when the City's property tax is only a drop in the bucket.
  • A lot of folks ask questions without ever intending to hear and understand the answer. I assume that they have some other motive than acquiring information.
  • Let's not do this again next year.

Ahem. The end.

Normal Version