Change isn’t easy.
It takes intellect to question norms and character to make unpopular changes in pursuit of goals. It includes having conversations with people you may not agree with. Seek to understand, then be understood, as they say.
‘You probably hate Trump. Both parties hate him. He’s not one of them. He’s probably not the ethical choice, but it had to start somewhere. If you would have driven by my house at primary time during the last presidential election, you’d have seen that I had a Bernie Sanders sign and a Donald Trump sign in my yard. They were both outsiders. That’s what’s gotta happen if you want change in government. You need people that are willing to stand up for something even if they know they’re going to get ruined. And they don’t care."
That house would be Tom Stevenson’s, a life-long Niagara County political professional with more than 40 years of battle scars. He’s seen a lot. To conservatives, he’s too liberal. To liberals, he’s too conservative. He believes difficult conversations are important to have, but that conversation and action are both essential. One of the things that make his views important is that he’s been in the streets talking to people that are off the normal grid, and that’s a perspective few have.
So, is vast change possible? Change that would make Niagara Falls not just a tad better, but one of the greatest cities in the world?
‘Yea. But things need to change," Stevenson said. "It’s not personal, because I know many of these people personally, but you need to get rid of all the people in office. Change the mindset. Because perpetuating the system behooves them. It’s the politics of poverty. If the city becomes prosperous maybe people become educated, and they say to themselves about the current politicians, why the hell are you making these decisions? This doesn’t help us. And maybe they vote them out. So it benefits the politicians to keep the populace uneducated, not working, and on the government dole. The aggregate poverty then lets them qualify for state and federal government funding, and there’s a press release in announcing that you’ve secured a large grant. Then, of course, the politicians control the levers of hiring from these funds and you get someone’s relative running the public authority making an outsized salary and giving out no-bid contracts to all the other relatives and friends. It’s worse than organized crime."
Stevenson maintains that most politicians are in the business of staying in office.
‘You have to understand the business everyone is in before you understand their actions," he said. "The business politicians are in is staying elected and bringing in money. The biggest chunks of money they can bring in are other government handouts. There’s a lot of money to be made, and a lot of jobs to hand out, to service the poverty in a community."
Are there any quick wins?
"Niagara Falls needs to do what Buffalo did when (Anthony) Masiello was mayor," he said. "We have far too many vacant residential buildings and vacant lots in neighborhoods. Nobody likes to live next to a vacant house. Offer that property to the homeowner next door at a significant savings, and make it beneficial for the homeowner to maintain and improve. Also, take contiguous vacant lots and make off-street parking for residents. Now you’ve got clear streets that city snowplows can get down in the winter, you’re strengthening neighborhoods and giving taxpayers a little something for their money."
And the tougher choices?
‘Land is everything and Niagara Falls needs a different tax model. When you can prove in court that your commercial property is worth zero, that’s a serious reality check. I can agree that Niagara Falls could be a world class city, but when a court rules that large swaths of commercial land within the city have zero value, that’s the facts to potential investors. It’s now costing zero to be in the land speculation business in Niagara Falls, not the land development business. Under a land value tax, if someone offers you hundreds of thousands of dollars for a vacant property and you turn it down, that would mean that the property is worth in excess of the asking price and should be taxed accordingly - at that price. It gets back to the business maxim: something is worth what someone else will pay for it, not what you think it might be worth. And something should be taxed at what it is worth, not what you may claim it’s worth."
‘We just had an election and one candidate campaigned on instituting a land-value tax and one campaigned against it," Stevenson added. "The candidate against changing our city property tax system won. Now, unless the state steps in and throws hundreds of millions of dollars at this problem, you aren’t going to see development. What kind of civic structure have we built that depends on one pot of tax dollars to bail out another pot of taxpayers?"
Stevenson’s comments are strong medicine. I’m not sure he’s right, but I know he’s not wrong. There’s something true about this, but it seems wrong to believe it. These things shake up your thinking, but at least you are thinking.
The civics takeaway: elections have consequences. There was an election on a consequential tax law change. Turnout was predictably low. Most people in the city stayed home. All of use are smarter than any of us. Those that participate get results. Those that don’t participate have to accept whatever happens.
The Civics Project is an organization founded to further the education of the public to their civic responsibilities. For further information or to become involved visit www.thecivicsproject.org. Mr. Christy can be reached via email at email@example.com.