Imagine if your child came home from school one day and announced that she had received an “F” on her test because the teacher refused to answer her questions during a study session in class. You would certainly be puzzled as to why that was so. But then imagine how angry you would be if you learned that the teacher had randomly chosen a few students to assist, while ignoring the rest. Perhaps the teacher chose only the students he likes. Perhaps he chose them based upon where they sit in the classroom, or whether they smile often. It would not matter why the teacher made such an arbitrary choice … it would be wrong.
What if your elementary child’s principal decided that the school needed new equipment for the baseball team? There might be lots of positive ways to raise the funds for such a need, but let’s imagine that the principal in question makes a poor choice. Rather than arranging a fundraiser or seeking donations, let’s imagine that the principal goes through an alphabetical list of all students, choosing the name of every third student. To the parents of each of these students she then sends a bill for $100 while asking nothing of the rest. Would that be just?
We Americans normally recoil in shock when we encounter such examples of unfairness and immorality. For some reason, however, our moral outrage too often fades when it comes to government. As long as it’s being spent in a way that meets our approval we seem quietly unconcerned about the source for public funds. But let’s be honest. As Margaret Thatcher once said, “there is no such thing as public money, there is only taxpayers’ money.”
The fictional examples I cite above are adequate metaphors for exactly what’s happening in the City of Ocean Springs in that award-winning area of downtown known as “Main Street.” To be sure, Ocean Springs has no street that I’m aware of with that name. “Main Street” is a special program that brings particular privileges to a tiny portion of the city. From what I’m able to determine from the perks provided under the program (some of which are shown here in photographs), it seems to include Washington Avenue from Highway 90 to Porter Street as well as Government Street between Washington and the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center.
If you happen to own a business in this privileged area, you are fortunate indeed. The smile of city governance falls upon you with great regularity, as do the dollars of your fellow taxpayers. The Main Street Program is the result of a “strong partnership” between the city government and the Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce (or, as I prefer to call it, the Chamber For Some But Not For Others).
To grasp the full extent of the difference between “Main Street” and the other streets of the city, just wander a few dozen yards off the exalted path to view those businesses on side streets. You will notice that the sidewalks get less attention (if they exist at all) and there are usually no stylish street signs or lamp posts. Neither will you find the sturdy, extra-large benches or the metal garbage receptacles that line Washington and Government Streets. Most noticeable of all is the absence of lovely decorative flower pots and floral gardens tended by city employees. Outside the “Main Street” project, the beauty you encounter–and there is much beauty in Ocean Springs–is paid for by property owners themselves. They receive no support from city coffers, no appreciation from city leaders, and very little attention from those leaders (unless they happen to get behind in their taxes or forget to renew their business license).
In the interest of integrity I happily point out to you, dear reader, that my wife and I own a small business in downtown Ocean Springs known as Lagniappe Restaurant & Catering. We dropped our membership in the Chamber of Commerce when we realized the lack of equity in the way it showers attention on one part of town above all others.
Because we serve prepared food, our city leaders have seen to it that our customers pay 2% more in sales tax than other types of businesses in Ocean Springs. Nonetheless, because we are not on “Main Street,” we purchase and plant our own flowers. We pay someone from our own pockets to cut the grass. Any outdoor furniture or trash receptacles we have on our property are purchased and maintained at our own expense. We don’t expect our neighbors or fellow business owners to pay for the perks that make our location attractive.
Fortunately for the municipal budget, there is no sidewalk in front of our business. The city doesn’t have to find the money to keep it in good repair since it doesn’t exist. We get lots of foot traffic in our neighborhood but for some reason the city doesn’t think the pedestrians on our street deserve sidewalks. Sometimes we get elderly people walking past or driving their handicap scooters as they go between the Villa Maria Retirement Community and Hartz Fried Chicken. They do their best to stumble or scoot by, dodging traffic and the uneven edges of street pavement.
Perhaps at our business we should install a sign on the lawn that reads, “No Municipal Funds Used in the Upkeep of This Property.” To do so, I’m sure we’d have to apply and pay for a sign permit. But here’s the good news about that sign fee. I’m sure the City of Ocean Springs and the Chamber of Commerce would be delighted to have a few more dollars to spend on “Main Street.”
I realize taxes are a necessity for every community. But a sense of fairness would be appreciated if it showed itself among our city leaders. Taxing one particular type of business seems unfair when the revenue is going to benefits for everyone. On the other hand, taxing everyone in order to spend those tax dollars on a certain privileged part of town also seems unjust.
Of course, if you have a business on “Main Street,” you may just hope that the owners of the back-street businesses don’t wise up to what’s going on. And if you enjoy the flowers on “Main Street” you may not realize that we who own businesses on the back streets are helping to pay for that lovely vegetation and its upkeep. In either case, I hope you enjoy the beauty provided to you by my taxes. In the meantime I’ll keep trying to save enough to pay for the upkeep of my own business while the burden of taxes gets higher each year.
Every dollar taken from us for taxes is another dollar we can’t spend on improvements to our business. But it’s another dollar that the city can spend on someone else’s business.
I hold no grudges about the success of others. In fact, I celebrate and relish the success of any business owner–especially in the current economic environment. But no business owner or particular section of town should receive more attention from city government than any other.