Here’s a Dickens of an idea.
After the Gainesville Daily Register published a moving piece about a downtown merchant decorating for Christmas, another local business owner asked, via Facebook, why the city doesn’t fund such decorations.
Great Marley’s ghost! Still, it’s not an outlandish idea. Lots of cities decorate for the holidays, and many focus on their downtown areas in an effort to drum up more business for the locals.
Many Texas towns at least have some decorations and a parade. And that’s fine, for the most part; often, local Rotary or Lions clubs sponsor those, so they’re not truly expenditures of public money.
But other cities have larger events and outlays; Georgetown, for example, has an annual Lighting of the Square event that is an elaborate (and expensive) kickoff of the holiday season.
What’s wrong with that? Simple: it’s bad public policy. City government has a limited set of responsibilities. It provides for public safety; it fills potholes; and it provides limited services to homeowners and businesses.
Put another way, the role of government (at all levels) is to protect life, liberty and property. When government goes beyond that role, it’s like stuffing too many presents into a stocking. Something has to give.
There are usually some poorly defined — and truly unknowable — benefits of public spending on things like Christmas decorations. Perhaps they will bring people downtown, and perhaps some local merchants will see a few more sales in December. Would those sales have happened anyway? We can’t know that.
Yet there are definite and knowable harms in public spending on things that have nothing to do with a city’s core mission. The money has to come from somewhere, and for cities that means higher property taxes (and to a lesser extent, sales taxes). That means that local merchants — and everyone else — in Gainesville pay higher taxes than they would have otherwise.
Now some people might argue “sure, but it’s a relatively small expense.” But the same could be said of carbs in your sugar cookies. Don’t fall off that wagon. The next thing you know, you’re stuffing your face with stuffing, rolling off with the yeast rolls and paying $600,000 a year for musicians to play at the airport.
Still, there are things city government can do to get into the spirit of the season — indeed, to keep it all year ‘round, just like Scrooge pledged to do.
First, cities can keep their taxes and fees low. That benefits everyone, including downtown businesses. And it leaves more money in the pockets of their potential customers.
Cities can also stop giving big tax breaks (usually in the form of abatements) to new businesses coming to town. Those breaks come at the expense of existing homeowners and businesses.
Many officials argue that tax abatement deals bring in economic development that wouldn’t happen otherwise. But the reality is that companies make their relocation decisions based on many factors, including their needs and projections that extend much further than the 10- or 15-year tax deals.
And offering such a deal just because we’re worried somewhere else might offer a deal is also a mistake; it perpetuates a destructive and unfair cycle.
Cities can also limit their forced annexation activities. In recent decades, downtowns throughout the nation have suffered because of a number of demographic changes — shifting residential patterns, big-box retailers and now online retailers. City officials often add to the woes of their downtown merchants by forcibly annexing more and more land outside the city limits. This shifts the city’s center of gravity more and more away from a downtown location.
And by the way, Dickens in on our side in this. Some might argue that only Scrooge himself could oppose public funding for Christmas celebrations. And that’s true — at first.
At the beginning for the story, Scrooge was a proponent of government activism and critical of private sector efforts. He paid his taxes (and throughout the story, the miserly Scrooge objected not once to his tax rate).
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time,” one character tells Scrooge. “Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
Scrooge responds, “Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses … Are they still in operation?”
Scrooge preferred to rely on public institutions, rather than private philanthropy. But, of course, even Scrooge realized his error, eventually.
And that’s why the private sector should decorate downtown Gainesville — not the city. We at the Texas Public Policy Foundation wish you and yours the happiest of holidays, and the most prosperous of new year.
James Quintero is the director of the Center for Local Governance at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.