1: Downtown renovation
city of Lincoln received a grant from the Illinois Department of
Transportation to refurbish the historic district that lies along the
railroad tracks downtown. Private property owners agreed to pay for 20
percent of the cost of fixing up their facades, and the state agreed
to pay the other 80 percent. Similarly, the grant paid for
streetlights and other public fixtures in the downtown area.
At what point is the public good served so convincingly that
public (taxpayers’) dollars should be spent to improve
2: Liquor licenses
Lincoln business operating a restaurant opened a second storefront
next door, with a different name and a different concept, but still
operated by the umbrella organization. Both the restaurant and the
next-door coffee and wine shop serve liquor. The city attorney and the
mayor ruled that both businesses must pay for a liquor license. The
business owners and the Chamber of Commerce thought this was unfair. A
judge will probably decide the outcome, but in the meantime much
ill-will has been directed at the mayor who, serving as the liquor
commissioner for the city, followed the advice of the city’s
When is government regulation necessary for orderly commerce and
public safety, and when does regulation impede the economic growth of
3: Senior citizen programs
spring, the county passed a referendum to establish a new tax levy on
real estate to support programs for senior citizens. Now three groups
are vying for a piece of the pie. One group, which has operated
primarily with charitable contributions in the past, provides social
and recreational activities at a center for senior citizens. Another
group, which receives both public and private support but is itself a
private, tax-exempt organization, serves the most needy senior
citizens in the county, providing transportation for the frail and
meals for the hungry. The third group is new to the county, operates
with public grants and private contributions, and seeks to extend
health services to people in rural areas.
What is the rationale for one segment of the population, in this case
senior citizens, securing special claim to public dollars? How does a
government body prioritize requests for access to public (taxpayers’)
dollars by organizations that all provide valuable services?
(To top of second
4: Tax abatements
the late 1970s and early 1980s, concern about a lagging economy and
shifts in populations away from the north and east and toward the
south and west caused many communities to use tax abatements to
attract new businesses. The rationale for tax abatements was that new
businesses would provide jobs and, ultimately, a larger tax base.
Opponents of tax abatements charged that the government should not
favor new businesses over existing businesses, and the cost of public
services (schools, streets, police, fire, for example) must be
equitably shared by all who choose to reside in or operate businesses
within the given tax jurisdiction.
am not going to attempt an answer to the questions raised by these
four issues, but I will suggest that it is impossible to address
particular situations, such as those cited above, until the polity has
debated and arrived at some consensus regarding the nature of
government. City councils and county boards provide processes for
dealing with particular situations, but we seem to lack necessary
institutions for broader public discourse on underlying principles.
Town meetings, in the Yankee tradition, provide a forum through which
members of a community may talk through their differing views of the
nature of government and, over time, arrive at some general
understandings that inform their approach to specific issues.
Political parties fulfill a similar purpose, but their reach seldom
extends to local concerns.
Internet may offer a democratizing power here. So let the debate
begin. I invite LDN readers to attack my portrayal of the situations
above, and to express their own opinions on these matters. But I ask
the following: Please couch your argument within some general
principle of the proper nature of government. After that, go at it.
The "he said, she said" of any local issue is titillating,
and I look forward to reading your take on downtown renovation, liquor
licenses, tax abatements and senior citizens programs. I only request
that you also give us your thoughts on the purposes, limits,
priorities and best practices of local government. Click here and let
me have it: firstname.lastname@example.org.