Sales Tax Potential Is Matched By Concerns

*Column originally ran in the Wayne County Press.

Anytime a new tax is afoot, a crowd will congregate. And Tuesday’s public hearing in Fairfield on the proposed business tax district was no exception. For most, tax is one of the few three-letter curse words.

So that there were speakers against the proposal was no surprise. That the proponents matched them in number may have been.

That Fairfield is one of the few towns to not have this tax or a similar one was quickly glossed over. We are the exception in this regard, not the rule. That sort of negates the “people will shop elsewhere” argument. Most of our competitors already have this tax, although there are exceptions.

Although Gary Carter was correct. There will be individual businesses that could see a loss of revenue. The question however is not about individuals, but about the greater good. Can the gains of others possibly offset losses of the few? That answer is likely yes.

Carter is also running for a Republican office, and campaigning against taxes always plays well to the voters. I would remind the only thing less popular than taxes is cuts, however.

He mentioned he supports all the project possibilities listed by the mayor in his public campaigning. Just, not with tax money.

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The elephant in the room is obviously Walmart, which Mayor Mike Dreith rightly pointed out as the main culprit in the deteriorating downtown. That is not just a Fairfield problem, it is a smalltown problem everywhere. The small shop keepers are hoping this is a way to recoup some of those losses and filter it back into the city. All the proponents speaking at Tuesday’s meeting were Fairfield business owners.

Sheila Zurliene also had a valid point about the two-thirds of the money would come “outside of Fairfield” people, a claim made by Dreith. That is misleading as, ahem, ‘round here, we consider our community as larger than just city limits. That true number is likely much smaller than that percentage, but still, it is a percentage.

Therein lies the return on investments. And make no mistakes, taxes are an investment, just a required one. The ROI comes from outside customer sales spending money here.

My job in sports has taken me all over the state over the last 20-plus years. I can generally tell you which towns have the additional sales tax and which ones don’t. Yes, the difference is often that noticeable.

As for the fixed income argument, it should be noted most of the necessities (groceries, medicine, etc.) are exempt from the tax.

Concerns

However, support for this should not be unmitigated. There are still issues that need to be addressed.

The 23-year number scares a lot of people. That number is an “up to 23 years”. Supports of this would do well to aim lower. One speaker at the meeting noted he came from a town that got this passed by starting with a five-year “trial period”. They re-upped it when that stretch was over. And to be honest, when is the last time you saw a tax go away after it was on the books. But five years is a much easier sell than 23.

One of the other trepidations is oversight and transparency. Even among the supporters, the phrase bandying about is “good in theory, but…”. This town has good reason to be skeptical of how it would be implemented. The TIF districts have been widely regarded as wasted money. True or not, that perception is palpable. And that comes from years of both mismanagement through incompetency as well as a lack of transparency. Some of that is on the public as well, as few participate in the meetings where most of this mismanagement has occurred.

Ideally, we elect competent people who know how to handle this properly. In a small town, that is not always possible. Borrowing from my world, I liken it to the Junior Football League. There are only so many people who can properly coach football in a small town and the more you expand, the more you take whoever is willing.

Unfortunately, we have not had civic leaders in the past who instilled trust when handed a large chunk of change.

In the end, however, I would still vote yes on this and keep my fingers crossed on the competency. This community is teetering on an unbalanced see saw. We have lost population, lost utility revenue, lost industry. Trying to capture some outside dollars might be a finger in the dam, but it must start somewhere.

Just hope the ROI outweighs any possible mismanagement.

Update: After this column ran, Mayor Dreith has said they will be looking for a five-year look back procedure, with the ability to end the tax if they do not feel it is working.

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