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The Journal Gazette

Friday, September 07, 2018 1:00 am


Asked, answered

Taxes, liberty remain compatible

Discussions about the proper role and scope of local government can be educational and thought-provoking. How does a community achieve the balance that makes government, as Thomas Jefferson might put it, our servant and not our master?

But the general principles should be pretty clear. Free enterprise, hard work and entrepreneurship are the community's basic drivers. Most people agree that local government must ensure such basic services as police and fire protection and decent streets, clean water, and efficient sewage and garbage disposal. In an age where communities such as Fort Wayne and regions such as northeast Indiana are in competition with the rest of the world, many would argue local government must also play a role in enhancing the community's quality of life and its ability to attract and retain businesses and jobs.

That's where City Councilman Jason Arp, R-4th, hears a different drummer. Since winning office in 2015, he has opposed most proposals to spend public funds for civic or business development. Arp, whose campaign slogan was “More Freedom,” contends a vote against a tax abatement or a public-private development project is ipso facto a blow for liberty. He expounds on that philosophy in a piece on today's oped page.

Such debate can be constructive. Arp's views, often shared by Councilman Paul Ensley, R-1st, and sometimes by Councilman Russell Jehl, R-2nd, ensure healthy discussion, even if a bipartisan, progressive majority, often allied with Democratic Mayor Tom Henry, usually prevails.

And Arp is right – let the 2019 election campaign begin. If a majority of Fort Wayne voters agree with his no-public-involvement philosophy, then they will re-elect him and elect other local leaders who can vote down publicly supported efforts to improve the city until the cows come home.

But it's time for the councilman and his allies to give up their campaign to persuade Fort Wayne to end the business personal property tax. Arp introduced this wrongheaded proposal for the second time this summer, and it was defeated again by the council in a 6-3 vote last week.

Arp contends that eliminating the tax, which applies to business equipment, would make more sense than granting abatements to new businesses or existing firms that want to expand. Lifting that burden from businesses, Arp argues, would attract more companies and make existing ones feel freer to invest and hire more employees. Then everybody, including the government, would have more revenue and the perceived need for publicly supported economic development would be eliminated.

But chucking away millions of dollars in tax revenue without any guarantee of replacing it could seriously undercut the services of the Fort Wayne Fire Department, the Allen County Public Library, Citi-link, area school districts and the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority, as representatives of those entities lined up once again to point out. Henry said elimination of the tax also could imperil neighborhood infrastructure improvements, police protection and parks enhancements.

Some of the losses might be made up for by raising tax rates for homeowners still under the property tax-rate cap, so local residents would be paying more for fewer services. The proposal, in other words, could mean less “liberty” for some taxpayers even as it threatened basic services most Americans would agree are needed.

Greater Fort Wayne Inc., the signature organization of the business community, also opposed ending the tax; just two business owners showed up at the hearings to testify for the proposal.

The council always needs a gadfly or two, and Arp plays that role to perfection. But he, Ensley and Jehl should forswear their desire to short-circuit all the debates by cutting off a vital source of local revenue. It's worth remembering that in the three years since former Gov. Mike Pence signed the measure that allows any county to eliminate the business personal property tax, not one county has taken that step. That is because it is a spectacularly bad idea.