Laurie Reynolds, Taxes, Fees, Assessments, Dues, And The “Get What You Pay for” Model of Local Government

56 Fla. L. Rev. 373 (2004) | | | |

INTRODUCTION :: The economic gap between affluent suburbia and the central city has recently received widespread attention in the state and local government law literature. Articles by prominent scholars representing a broad range of doctrinal approaches have coalesced around a consensus that the current concentration of wealth and resources in metropolitan areas is unacceptable, and that the allocation of local government powers has helped to preserve, and indeed enhance, the schism between the “favored quarter” and the inner urban core. Though the underlying normative arguments rest on very different rationales, their common goal of reducing regional disparities has made the scholarly dialogue a dispute over how, rather than whether, to stimulate a more equitable distribution of wealth, services, and opportunities in major metropolitan regions.

For some, like Professor Clayton Gillette, reformists of local government structure should tinker as little as possible with the existing system, in which municipal governments exercise substantial autonomy, and fragmented and overlapping single purpose government units continue to increase at a rapid pace. Others, like Professors Gerald Frug and Richard Thompson Ford, similarly champion the preservation of local power, but support radical reformulation of the ways local governments currently exercise that power. Still others, like Professors Richard Briffault and Sheryll Cashin, have argued strenuously for the creation of a general purpose elected regional unit of government, which would assume control over region-wide issues and work with existing local government units to accomplish a more equitable distribution of resources in metropolitan areas. Though their proposals diverge, the work of all of these scholars focuses on ways the current legal system has made it possible for affluent suburbs to capture wealth and impose costs on other parts of metropolitan areas, most importantly through the exercise of zoning powers, taxation powers, and school funding systems.

In general, current regionalist scholarship highlights inter-municipal disparities and evaluates proposals for redistribution through the lens of the existing rules of local government formation. The commentators recognize, for instance, that the state statutory procedures for local government incorporation and annexation provide a strong incentive for affluent groups to form a local government whose residents have roughly equal amounts of wealth and, just as important, substantially similar service needs and desires. By taking advantage of the autonomy and power offered to municipal governments under the laws of most states, and the protection against annexation it provides, affluent, homogeneous enclaves are able to capture the wealth within their borders and tax it only to serve the needs of their similarly situated neighbors. In the resulting financial picture, residents view their local government as a vehicle for providing services that everyone in the community desires, creating what Professor Frug has called the “consumer-oriented vision” of local government. Moreover, if taxes are used to provide the same services for taxpayers of similar wealth and service needs, they lose their redistributive impact and become, again in Professor Frug’s words, more like country club dues.

In Frug’s view, the negative consequences of the consumer approach to local government are threefold. First, it “replac[es] the one-person, one-vote principle associated with democracy with the one-dollar, one-vote rule of the marketplace.” Second, he argues, it “perpetuates a pervasive, but false, justification for the radical differences that now exist between the quality of city services available in different parts of America’s metropolitan regions.” Finally, and most fundamentally, it trivializes and denigrates the “values commonly associated with democracy-notions of equality, of the importance of collective deliberation and compromise, [and] of the existence of a public interest not reducible to personal economic concerns . . . .”

This Article looks at the consumer view of local government from an intra- rather than inter-municipal vantage point. Focusing on revenue raising powers, this Article explores how the “dues mentality” pervades many aspects of local governments’ never-ending quest to raise more money. In particular, this Article evaluates how special assessments, fees, and the formation of business improvement districts have overtaken general taxation as the preeminent revenue raising device. As later Parts will show, the use of these techniques further exacerbates and cements the dues mentality in the minds of the citizenry, as taxpayers become accustomed to finely tuned tax-like charges that are levied in exchange for a growing number of government services. Though local government incentives to resort to these devices may have nothing to do with regionalism, the result is anti-regional nonetheless. Citizens who are repeatedly asked to pay a specific charge or assessment for a new government service are likely to develop the mindset that they are paying for what they get. In turn, this “get what you pay for” mentality may produce widespread opposition to the use of general tax dollars for redistributive purposes and, more fundamentally, taxation efforts in general.

These observations have serious implications for the future of regionalism reforms. If, in fact, the dues mentality is firmly ingrained at the local and sub- local level, it is not immediately apparent that current regionalist proposals would do much to alter the metropolitan landscape. That is, even a general purpose regional government, if it continues to operate with familiar devices like assessments, fees, and special districts, might preserve the same regional inequality as the more narrowly banded local government predecessor; only the level at which the inequality is produced will change. Thus, this Article concludes, regionalism’s call for reformulation of the existing legal rules needs to extend more broadly to include reassessment of revenue raising techniques at the municipal level; otherwise, not even major regional reforms will move us toward the regionalists’ goal of more equitable resource distribution across the metropolitan area.

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