Downtown renovation, liquor licenses,
tax abatements and senior citizen programs

How do we encourage public discourse on the nature of government?

[AUG. 26, 2000]  Recent governmental events in Lincoln and Logan County set one to thinking about political philosophy. For the sake of distilling a few core principles from a mountain of particulars, I will simplify the relative facts.

Issue 1:  Downtown renovation

The 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.

Question: At what point is the public good served so convincingly that public (taxpayers’) dollars should be spent to improve privately-owned property?

Issue 2:  Liquor licenses

A 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 attorney.

Question: When is government regulation necessary for orderly commerce and public safety, and when does regulation impede the economic growth of the community?

Issue 3:  Senior citizen programs

Last 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.

Questions: 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?


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Issue 4:  Tax abatements

During 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.

I 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.

The 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: Thanks.

[Sam Redding]



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