Sitting in Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, two things stuck out to me:
Municipal Service Districts
First, the conversation about the Main Street program in general and Municipal Service Districts (MSD) in particular was pretty interesting (for anyone so inclined, the relevant part of the meeting starts at 49:00). What was fascinating to me was that the most vocal supporters of the kiosks were also the most strident opponents of MSDs – which seems like a pretty classic example of trying to have your cake and eat it too.
For a pretty good rundown of what a MSD is, check out this post from the UNC School of Government, but basically it’s a special tax district (the boundaries of which are set by city council) where the taxes raised in that district are dedicated towards some predetermined goal (urban renewal and downtown revitalization are the most common goals). A lot of municipalities use MSDs to pay for things like tourist information kiosks, downtown beautification/enhancement projects, downtown ambassadors, and other initiatives that benefit downtown businesses (here’s an example from Wilmington). So, rather than paying for things like fancy kiosks with the property taxes that everyone in Belmont pays, these projects would be funded by the taxes collected from the businesses that most directly benefit from them. The other benefit is that it provides a more predictable revenue stream for downtown development and, there’s pretty generous leeway on how the advisory board overseeing the district can spend the money. Of course, the trade-off is that the MSD typically assesses a special tax from the property owners in the defined district, so property owners in the MSD would see higher tax bills. On the other hand, you’d probably see a lot of the public opposition to things like the kiosks disappear if the money for them wasn’t coming out of general property tax revenues.
So, really it’s a judgement call. Although, I will admit to being baffled by those who claim that having the kiosks makes us a “modern” city but then reject out of hand the most common way of paying for these “modern” enhancements. It seems like the hostility of most of the council to his idea is preventing them from even asking the business community if this is something they would be interested in. I certainly don’t think it would hurt to ask the question.
The second item that I found more than a little concerning is that there was a conversation among several of the council members about keeping things “in the room” or “in the meeting”. There is apparently some consternation about discussing the council’s policy decisions on Facebook and other social media. Now, if some members of the council prefer to hole themselves up in a bunker and never engage with their constituents, that is, of course, their prerogative. I enjoy engaging with the people of Belmont, both online and offline. I think that social media is particularly valuable, because it’s quick, it’s easy, and everyone has a Facebook account. And by interacting with you on Facebook, I think that I learn just as much from you, as you (hopefully) learn from me. I welcome the conversation, the feedback (both positive and negative), and the engagement. Your opinion matters, even if it makes some council members uncomfortable.