Christina Georgiou has a good piece on some new ideas that came out of the first public workshop on the Neighborhood Improvement District proposal in Easton. Some of them are good, but the city needs to keep the focus on the original goal of funding the Ambassadors and the Easton Main Street Initiative in the central business district.
For this to be a success, a few principles have to be non-negotiable.
The first principle is No Peanut Butter. The spending has to be concentrated. Christina quotes several people saying that the whole city should fund these programs. I agree with this argument, because I think it’s obvious that the neighborhoods benefit from a strong and vibrant downtown core. But is this a politically sustainable arrangement?
Some people are already talking about expanding the services to the neighborhoods. I would cautiously support funding specific projects outside the NID area, but I do think it sounds like a recipe for peanut butter.
If voters in the neighborhoods are seeing the funding mostly being concentrated downtown, aren’t they eventually going to try to overturn it? The most politically sustainable scenario is going to be downtown property owners paying for concentrated downtown programs. There’s no reason you couldn’t set up similar programs in the other neighborhoods, but you really need to constrain the area.
Another non-negotiable principle is that this needs to be dedicated funding. Paying for it out of the general fund leaves the programs vulnerable to budget cuts. Corporate sponsors could be an unstable source of revenue. Making businesses pay more would be politically unsustainable, and also unfair since residents would be reaping a windfall from increases in property value. That’s why it’s hard to understand Mike McFadden’s perspective on this:
“If I’m paying in, maybe there’s something the city can do for me, like giving me some ‘get out of jail’ cards for parking tickets. That wouldn’t cost anything (out of pocket),” he said. “If I’m paying out some money, I should get something in return.”
Actually, forgiving parking tickets would cost money. And what he’s getting in return is increased property value, because when the Ambassadors keep the downtown clean and the EMSI fixes the facades of blighted buildings, all the land downtown increases in value.
The best idea here is offsetting the NID tax with higher parking prices. This would create more turnover at metered spaces, and collect more money from tourists as well as residents. Contrary to some peoples’ suggestions, there’s not any evidence that small changes in parking prices would reduce downtown trips or hurt business. Other cities have succeeded in paying for downtown revitalization by raising parking prices. The more likely scenario is that a cleaner, less blighted downtown with more stores would attract many more people than the number that would be deterred by higher parking prices.
Other good options not mentioned would be taxes on bad things you want to see less of, like plastic bags or sugary drinks. Obviously these would be controversial, but they’re good taxes because the market distortions they produce are beneficial, and they raise money for worthwhile programs.