RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

EZ for Corporate Developers, Hard on Taxpayers

At the end of each year, we look back and wonder what the citizenry has accomplished. World peace? The end of global warming? Full larders for the poor and homeless?

Alas, no. The stories of the year will be more about the end of peace for someone and more acceptance that temperatures are rising due to our own carbon dioxide emissions and we have no clue what to do. The questions raise more questions, especially about food — can we raise food in a changing climate, or does industrial agriculture need to take over more productive land in new places, displacing more helpless people? Big stories the media doesn’t want to touch.

The big story for 2012, of course, is the Ds success in the elections. But the elections of the federal officers — president, senators and the like — didn’t throw industry into dungeons. Rather, the elections guaranteed business as usual, which means more subsidies for more well-connected rich guys. In rural America, an old idea appears in new places. The “enterprise zone,” first designed to rehabilitate blighted urban areas, is becoming the way for county and state officials to bring big-box stores to the corn fields. In several states, new “enterprise zone” legislation was passed in the waning hours of the 2012 session, the results just now coming to the surface.

Abbreviated “EEZ,” which implies that this is the easy way for enterprise to locate in your county, the job creators draw a line around a piece of land and declare it blighted. Developers can benefit from a bunch of tax abatements if they come into the blighted land and build something. Big box store chains are the usual beneficiaries, truck stops, or multinational hotel chains. You see these shiny new, plastic-faced, conglomerates along interstate highways. Hogging all the land, they suck the life from downtowns and make sure there’s no place for a little guy to set up shop. In fact, the little guy who’s paid taxes for years is the victim. Operating in a non-EEZ, he sees his taxes go up, to cover the land that’s been “tax abated.”

By the way, as soon as your government starts using a word you don’t know, like “abated,” look it up! They’ll never use a simple word, like “decreased” or “terminated” if they can use a difficult one.

Tax abatement first appeared in my county when the economic development boys decided we needed a golf course. They declared a cow pasture blighted because it only had two buildings, and those were in rough shape. Us rubes couldn’t figure it out — all our cow shelters are in rough shape, the way the cows like them. When a cow wants more ventilation, she just pushes out a wall, easy shmeazy. Done!

The hook for the golf course was that it could be relieved of paying property taxes for some number of years, and with that incentive a developer came in pretty quickly. This was about 10 years ago, and the course has still never made money for the city who hires one manager after another in the hope of finding someone to turn a profit.

The farmer did OK on the sale. As a prosperous son of an entrepreneurial father, the family holdings were and are still vast. But who was the real winner? The developers, of course.

And the losers? Taxpayers. First of all, if the point is to build a new tax base, it’s brainless to begin by exempting developers from the increased taxes they could create. Secondly, it puts a double burden on the taxpayers that pay for the extra services to the new developments. Ask any sheriff – he pays more visits to homes, even luxurious ones, than he pays to cow pastures. And, of course, human children use more schools than bovine children, have more emergencies, need more services. Thirdly, and most important, this kind of enterprise takes rights from property owners who have cared for the land in the past. While the zones may be created by the most careful county fathers, the zones are in existence for a long time, usually 25 years. The definition of “blighted,” which is pretty shaky as it stands today, can change.

How can industry change the definition? Choose one: The farmer that refuses to plant GMOs in neat rows; the pork producer that refuses to lock his hogs in a shiny metal building and lets them run on pastures; the independent locker plant with a hodgepodge of buildings; the independent baker operating during the week from a church kitchen.

EEZs have been, up to recently, an urban problem as developers march into a neighborhood. In St. Louis, people watched helplessly as their tidy neighborhood of family bungalows was bulldozed to make way for a sporting-goods store. Insulted when their small homes were condemned as blighted, the elderly homeowners argued that their homes were full of memories, but progress doesn’t listen to that kind of argument.

But, look, if we’re to solve global problems including how to produce food and how to cut carbon emissions, we need food production in every neighborhood. Deciding that there’s more value in corporate development is foolish.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. She blogs at Email:

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2013

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