Tax and Serve

IT'S NOT OFTEN that business owners ask to have their property taxes raised; when they do, you've pretty much got to assume that they're getting something extra. Like, perhaps, a "special service district" where snow is not just plowed to the side of the road, but actually piled on trucks and hauled out of town; where trees are planted, illegal posters are removed, and maybe even trolleys run at the behest, and under the control, of the property owners who pay for them.

On the face of it, this is a brilliant idea: Why shouldn't business people be able to hire government for extra beautification chores? The dark side, to critics, is that that notion runs directly counter to the basic tenets of American democracy: Rather than one-person-one-vote, claims San Francisco tax activist Tom Gallagher in an article in this week's issue of The Nation, such special-service districts go by the principle of one-(property-owning)-dollar-one-vote. It's the business property owners who decide what's done with their money; instead of suffering citywide tax increases for, say, the public schools, they can target their bucks for maximum efficiency.

In some cities, "business improvement districts," or BIDs, have evolved into full-fledged quasi-governments, complete with police forces. Earlier this year, New York papers reported on how four guys named Bubba, Big Black, Kizer, and Red claimed to have beaten up homeless people while working for a Manhattan BID. In Minneapolis, says City Council member Steve Minn (13th Ward)--who is currently talking to merchants at 50th & France and 43rd & Upton about implementing "special service districts"--the question of security has never been raised. Districts now in operation (in Dinkytown, Uptown, Linden Hills, and the like) seem content with contracting for extra snow removal, parking-lot maintenance, and landscaping. Minn says he hasn't heard from anyone complaining of the districts undermining democracy; besides, "that's why we have lots of hearings and public discussions before we ever put something like this together."

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