GEORGE KENNEDY: Electorate of 150 will decide if the rest of us pay a new sales tax

Thursday, October 27, 2011 | 5:15 p.m. CDT; updated 7:53 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 27, 2011

If the Occupy COMO protesters are looking for something worth protesting locally, I have a suggestion — our Nov. 8 election.

What election, you ask? Reasonable question. Except for Thursday’s preview in the Missourian and an earlier Tribune story, it hasn’t drawn much press coverage.

That may be because the electorate is only about 150 people. The trouble, from my perspective as one of the other 99.9 percent, is that a simple majority of those 150 can raise the cost of living for the rest of us.

Let me explain. The registered voters who live in the downtown area bounded, roughly, by Elm, Hitt and Ash streets and Providence Road are deciding a ballot issue that would allow businesses within that area — hereinafter known as the Downtown Community Improvement District or CID — to levy a new sales tax of up to one-half of 1 percent.

In other words, a handful of voters, most of whom aren’t even owners of the businesses that are sponsoring this vote and will be its main beneficiaries, get to decide to tax everybody who shops, dines or drinks downtown.

Actually, they’re already deciding. The mail-in ballots went out this week. Nov. 8 is just the deadline for voting.

Taxation without representation? Sure looks like that to me.

At least, as County Clerk Wendy Noren joked when I talked with her Tuesday to get the election details, a CID is more democratic than a TDD.

The former requires a vote, however limited. The latter – those Transportation Development Districts that have metastasized in a taxing ring around the city’s borders – were established by petition to the court with no say by even 150 voters.

The wording on the ballot, provided by the CID and published in Wednesday’s Missourian, is blandly appealing. The new revenue, it promises, will pay for such things as “downtown beautification,” “business marketing and development,” “event recruitment and promotion” and “shopping, dining and entertainment enhancements.”

Another way of putting all that, of course, would be “better business for downtown merchants.”

Now, I’m all for a prosperous downtown. I just wonder why the merchants don’t pay for their own enhancements.

I put that proposition to Carrie Gartner, the executive director of this district and of the downtown associations that preceded it.

Her answer was that it isn’t only the merchants who’ll benefit. Why, we visitors to downtown will receive Wi-Fi Internet access, curbside recycling and street musicians. (I passed one of those on Ninth Street the other day. I’d have given him a buck if he hadn’t been pounding on a bongo drum.)

I’m being sarcastic. She wasn’t. Not only the merchants but those 150 residents and all of us customers will reap the rewards, she said. No doubt she believes that.

She added that her employers voted recently to continue paying the special property tax they levied on themselves some time ago. So they’re not being completely parasitical.

I asked why the merchants shouldn’t tax themselves a bit more if they want to make themselves more attractive.

“Everybody benefits,” she said.

The merchants themselves don’t seem to think those universal benefits are self-evident. They’ve ponied up $4,000 to hire a high-powered political consultant to help convince the electorate.

“It’s all about talking to voters,” Gartner told me.

First, of course, you have to figure out just who those voters are. The official registration roll is never exact. Voters come and go. That’s why Wendy Noren said “about 150” is her best guess.

She couldn’t say, for instance, how many – if any – of the students in those new apartments on Tenth Street might be registered to vote in the CID.

My guess is that there are more students taking turns waving signs in front of City Hall than will be voting on the tax issue.

Like the rest of us, however, they’ll be paying for it.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Jimmy Bearfield October 27, 2011 | 7:05 p.m.

Even fewer people decided that the rest of us should pay a new sales tax at the mall and shopping centers such as Grindstone.

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