Tuesday night, the Orem city council approved a property tax increase to plug some budget holes. A lot of the people present (some council members included) chose to pin the blame squarely on UTOPIA even though that’s less than accurate. I wasn’t there, but the recap from Twitter made it abundantly obvious that the crowd had a lot more anger than information.
Who do we blame for creating an unhinged and uninformed angry mob? Precisely the people who tried to walk away with a non-chalant whistle: The Sutherland Institute and Utah Taxpayers Association. Both groups have been painting a picture of apocalypse from the tax increases while trying to pin the entire thing on UTOPIA. Neither of them discussed the shift from sales to property taxes that dozens of cities are currently involved in, nor did they try to inform the public with alternatives to raising taxes. This purposeful attempt to leave citizens uninformed created some of the wackier and downright dangerous suggestions of the night, things that both organizations need to now own as a byproduct of whipping the citizenry into a fenzy.
And what were these suggestions of fiscal suicide? Some people suggested either that the city wasn’t directly responsible for the bond or that they should just stop paying it. Anyone with any financial know-how knows that you can’t unilaterally declare that you don’t owe money on a loan or that you’ll just stop paying bills you don’t like. If the city chose to do that, it’s credit rating would be worse than junk and it would be a true financial catastrophe for the city. More than a few people suggested that the city declare bankruptcy over it. They obviously don’t know that UTOPIA’s payment comprises a scant 3.2% of Orem’s total budget, nor do they seem to get that the consequences would be roughly the same as not paying the bond. It would be akin to burning down the house because you found a piece of rotten timber.
Another popular suggestion is to sell the network, but this, too, is divorced from financial reality. At the end of the payments, the cities (and presumably the subscribers who paid for installation) end up owning the network free and clear. The only way a sale makes sense is if the sale price would exceed the estimated value of the network at the end of the payments. Anything less would mean a wider loss, and there is no sale that will cover the price of the bond. Evidence suggests that a sale would go poorly anyway. American Fork “sold” AFCNet, but the company that “bought” it hasn’t been current on its interest-only payments and will likely not have the required $500K lump-sum payment when it comes due in a few months. Provo tried to sell iProvo twice without success. Both of those networks cover their respective cities whereas UTOPIA does not have a contiguous service area. Odds are good that any sale would result in a substantial loss of value.
The core problem is that both UTA and Sutherland (the latter of which I expected better from) presented cherry-picked facts and fabrications designed explicitly to incite anger. This was done in lieu of presenting a full slate of facts (like the trend in dozens of cities of moving from sales taxes to property taxes), their proposed solutions, and a rationale for the conclusion. When you take that approach, you create a mob mentality problem rather than seeking solutions. When you call them on it, they back off with a weak “well, we didn’t mean that” which comes off as trying to weasel out of the situation they created.
You can see an obvious common thread from the suggestions and actions. None of them actually think through the full consequences of the actions proposed, they’re “shoot from the hip”, and they’re emotional responses to try and undo a decision that’s over, done with, and now has to be owned. These folks (citizens and think tanks alike) could learn more than a few things from mayors like Mike Winder and John Curtis who, despite not supporting municipal broadband, have accepted that their job is to make the best of the situation.
(You can read more from the Daily Herald here.)