On the day the snow fell, I had nowhere to be. The window offered a stunning vantage point to sit and watch the cars on 3rd Avenue slowly disappear beneath the cold, white blanket of snow. Late that afternoon, I trudged through the impassible streets to the hardware store for tree lights. The street was magically desolate. Even the buses were silent, having been pulled off the road. With the wind blowing in my face, and a handful of hooded figures stumbling in various directions, it was almost apocalyptic. For a second I couldn’t help but think this is what it’s like when civilization loses control—in war or natural disaster—except that in a few more steps I would purchase clear mini-indoor/outdoor Christmas tree lights and bathtub tile caulk, everyday products to assure me society had not fallen into chaos.
It was only a few days later that I was less sure. I attended the public hearing of the City Council’s tax levy meeting on Dec. 13, where around 75 tax-paying citizens lobbied the Council against a proposed property tax increase. As elected chair of Stevens Square Community Organization, I was there to safeguard our organization’s funding through the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP), which had been offered as recompense by the Mayor and select Council members to vociferous property owners.
I quote Oliver Wendell Holmes on my Facebook page: “I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.” So I am sympathetic to the city’s financial struggles within the state and national economic picture, but I haven’t paid property taxes long enough to see them increase 300 percent, as one speaker had, which is a circumstance I acknowledge would likely prompt me to change my status. Another individual referred to the current rate of tax increases approved by the city of Minneapolis in the last decade as a “death spiral.” The slogan proved surprisingly catchy and was reiterated by many throughout the 4-hour hearing. Many individuals threatened to abandon a city they love, less rhetorically than I probably imagine.
Incidentally, many of these were homeowners that might otherwise renovate their homes, improve their efficiency, function, or curb-appeal, but clearly not in a city that would financially penalize them for it. As an architect primarily working in the residential market, I could feel the pull of the “death spiral.”
Many genuinely claimed to be one tax increase away from losing their homes, and sadly, one speaker appealed to the council that keeping her home was more important than “NRP street lights.” That was the moment I felt civilization begin to tear, in the same way the Metrodome conceded to 17 inches of snow.
The details are almost incoherent, but the proposed cuts to NRP funding will not even affect the 2011 city budget. Unfortunately, in the current economic climate, a pool of money—dedicated though it may be—cannot hold back the forces of protest and politics.
I hadn’t planned to speak at the hearing, but as a property tax payer and NRP supporter I wanted to deflate the erroneous “us” versus “them” scenario. I was able to buy property because the condominium I bought was partially funded by NRP and initiated by the neighborhood association for which I now serve as chair. The completion of my building, and others to follow, increased the city’s tax base. Revolving loan programs have improved properties and made our organization financially beneficial to the city. For 20 years, NRP created the opportunity for neighborhoods to promote safety, outreach, and development that have benefitted our neighborhoods in enduring and effective ways. NRP provided a long-term investment in our neighborhood with great return.
I walked home from city hall after the public hearing. Snow removal crews and vehicles were humming in all directions, providing another example of civilization at work. One speaker reminded the Council that “neighborhoods existed before NRP and will exist again after,” but clearly the disparity between many of them will continue without a funding source intended to empower them equally. In the end, the Council approved the tax increase along with the amendment to reallocate NRP funding, reminding us all that greater forces are at work, and we should huddle together for a long, snowy winter.
Bryan Anderson lives in Stevens Square. He works for SALA Architects.