Monday night’s City Council meeting is not going to fade into the annals of history quietly. Those opposed to the enhanced enterprise zone designations made sure of that.
The argument: To designate an area as an EEZ, a portion must be declared as "blighted."
Blight has become the newest insult added to our lexicon as something more than "a deteriorated condition (urban blight)." It is the newest battle line between a pro-business government and local citizens, one side seeking economic development, the other side not wanting to be labeled as somehow inferior or diseased.
It is a question of the definition of "blighted area," as often seen in statutes, defining blight as those conditions that endanger life and or property. Unfortunately, the state’s definition also includes "morals" in reasons for declaration of a blighted zone.
The Missouri Revised Statutes adds to the definition to include having "pervasive poverty, unemployment and general distress, and (2) At least sixty percent of the residents living in the area have incomes below ninety percent of the median income of all residents."
Now this is not supposed to be an easy criterion to meet for more than the obvious surface reasons.
Though Columbia’s unemployment rate is lower than the national average, we have not added jobs that do not require a college degree. In fact, Columbia’s manufacturing business has taken a tumble as we concentrate on technology, university and finance careers.
Columbia’s median income, at $42,800 or about $21.40 an hour, is lower than both the Missouri ($45,000) and national ($50,600) median incomes. This indicates that despite Columbia’s focus on the university and colleges, hospitals and banks, there are too many jobs that fall into the lower end of the income schema. Read this to mean too many jobs are in retail, which pay less than $20,000 annually if the employee is permitted to work full time. Few are.
Using these figures, a blighted area needs at least 60 percent of its population to have an income below $38,520. Darin Preis, executive director of Central Missouri Community Action, told me that a family of four would need an annual income of about $38,000 to get by without falling into deep debt. Poverty, as defined by the Department of Health and Human Services, for the same family is $23,050. For assistance to survive, many federal and state programs use 150 percent of poverty, or $34,575.
Poverty is only a few cents away for many, and the areas targeted by the EEZ represent the lower income bracket of Columbia’s working class. Why does the City Council want to harm the working poor in the name of economic development?
Then there is the problem with the term "morals." Exactly whose morals are going to be used here? Those of the upper income bracket and industry? How about biblical morals? Secular morals? Morals made up on the spot?
In their upcoming book, “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” authors Donald Barlett and James Steele rail against “trickle down” economics and the “1 percenters” who seem to control the American financial and legislative arenas. Yes, our City Council members do not fall into this elite community, but some seem to be representing industry over citizenry. Are the morals of the council now equating to make money, hoard money and pay as little as possible to increase corporate wealth to meet financial criteria?
Mind you, this is not all corporations, and the few factories we still have in Columbia and Boone County seem to be here at least in the short term.
The ultimate question might be: Is it fair that we treat those in the upper 10 percent better than the lower 50 percent of our citizens?
David Stokes of the Show-Me Institute told the council Monday that enhanced enterprise zones and similar economic zones are usually unsuccessful. He called these zones a "dirty little secret that nobody seems to want to recognize," lowering local tax base, requiring more government intervention and possible abuse of eminent domain.
It appears that the proposed EEZ will do more economic harm than good and is morally repugnant.
I urge the City Council, the new EEZ Board and business leaders to consider what they are about to do to those who live in the proposed enhanced enterprise zone, those who work hard, pay their taxes and vote, and those who happen to earn less than $40,000 annually.
They are as important as our local millionaires.
David Rosman is an award-winning editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. Questions? Contact news editor Laura Johnston.