HICKS: Muncie’s status quo is high taxes, poor service

Muncie’s current debate over the Local Option Income Tax, or LOIT, is ripe for journalistic musings.

Property-tax
caps, as well as a dwindling population and commercial base, have left the city in the uncomfortable situation of cutting
budgets. Since the bulk of costs are related to fire and police salaries, few options are available. The city has turned to
the short length of rope the Legislature offered amid the debate on property tax caps—the LOIT.

On July 6,
hundreds of folks descended upon city hall to argue for and against the new tax. I’d love to relate it in detail, but
to do the event true justice requires an accomplished playwright.

It had all the parts of high drama and farce:
a threatening and psychotic voice-mail orchestrated by the firefighters and sent to the mayor; a conspicuously absent city
councilman (also a fireman) under multiple indictments related to election fraud; and the UAW very publicly siding with the
citizens taxpayer group against the firefighter union.

And as with any good drama, a touch of farce was present
in the form of a community group spinning itself as the broker of fresh ideas, when what it really was hawking was more of
the same failed politics that have idled the city for too long.

What struck me most throughout the two-hour session
was that so few in the hall seemed to understand Muncie’s greatest threat—the status quo.

City government
can really affect two things about itself: tax rates and quality of public services. Residents and businesses choose to locate
in places based upon taxes and the quality of those services.

Some people and businesses prefer low taxes and few
services. Others are willing to pay higher taxes in return for better services. The past few decades have seen growth in communities
that balance the two, be they high or low. While low-tax/high-quality services are rare (and attract lots of new residents),
high taxes and poor public services are all too common. These places stagnate and dwindle.

Muncie, like a good
many midsize cities in the Midwest, is losing population, commerce and options. Simply “getting by” is the fastest
road to ruin. Cities like Muncie have to listen more closely to the faint voices of two largely forgotten groups—those
who have left the city and those who have chosen other locations outside the city.

The leavers constitute one out
of every 25 families since 2000, while more than half of those who are newly hired by the city’s leading employers choose
somewhere else to raise families. Muncie’s status quo is high taxes and poor services. The status quo is long-term disaster.

Because of a poorly designed law, the city gets to levy a countywide LOIT. Ironically, this will only serve to
exaggerate the public-service-quality rift between Muncie and the surrounding communities where dollars have been spent far
more wisely.

At least the road out of town will be well-paved.

___

Hicks is director
of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly.
He can be reached at [email protected]

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Editor's note: IBJ is now using a new comment system. Your Disqus account will no longer work on the IBJ site. Instead, you can leave a comment on stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Past comments are not currently showing up on stories, but they will be added in the coming weeks. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.