Beyond Public and Private

As someone who has successfully opposed formation of two local Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in San Leandro, California, I was disappointed by Jesse Walker's article ("Beyond Public and Private," November), which betrayed a lack of insight into the subject. His characterization of BIDs as somewhat consensual belies the reality, at least in California. Most BIDs in California are created by a small, active group of politically well-connected businesses seeking to impose their vision on the majority of politically less-active businesses. If it were consensual, then the other businesses would voluntarily contribute, rendering a BID unnecessary.

In California, once the municipality has initiated the process, BIDs are theoretically subject to a vote by affected businesses, but the vote is illusory. A successful protest of the BID needs 50 percent of the businesses to affirmatively protest in writing. All businesses that do not properly protest are counted in favor of the BID. This sets up an almost insurmountable barrier: Large percentages of any electorate fail to vote in almost any modern election.

Effective protest is further discouraged through a deliberately consumer-unfriendly process. Notices of the BID are typically sent to businesses in highly technical, arcane language. No form of protest or return envelope is provided. This discourages all but the most literate, knowledgeable, and motivated of businesses from challenging the process. If a business owner speaks a foreign language, tough luck. The business roll often includes businesses no longer operating, but their silence nevertheless counts in favor of the BID.

Once the BID bureaucracy is in place, it does what all bureaucracies do: It focuses on its own self-perpetuation and growth. No matter how inefficiently it delivers services, it will publicly celebrate its putative successes and ignore the tax cost to businesses.

BIDs are essentially perpetual since it is rarely worthwhile for any individual business to expend the energy to oppose bureaucratic entrenchment. As practiced here in California, BIDs are in no sense even quasi-consensual. A few organized businesses seek to compel other businesses to pay so that they might impose their preferences on how capital is deployed. That's called a tax. An associate editor from reason should have few kind words for additional taxes, no matter how pretty the surrounding rhetoric.

Michael Jacobowitz
San Leandro, CA

I was interested to find a quote from my organization, the Oregon Downtown Development Association (ODDA), in your latest issue, when neither I nor any of my staff were ever interviewed. The way the quote was written made it sound like ODDA was quoted directly and (one would assume) recently for the article. This is incorrect. I was told the quote came from Richard Briffault's four-year-old law review article on BIDs, where Briffault quoted from a 15-year-old publication that has been revised and updated twice.

In defense of our position and credibility as an organization, I would like your readers to know that we would never say that large, property-owner occupied buildings are "the most dangerous group" standing in the way of implementing a BID. Often, we've found that it is the larger property owners who see the value of, and provide support for, the BID as it is being discussed and implemented. A BID must provide good value and services to the payers or it risks, and rightfully so, being abolished through an initiative process or by sunsetting.

Walker claims that BIDs are "closer in spirit to a theme park than to a bustling urban plaza." I've discovered that communities of all sizes across the country use BIDs as tools to help revitalize lagging downtown and neighborhood business districts. BIDs are used to help reclaim these commercial centers as the authentic hearts and souls of the communities that they were originally intended to be, where people shop, socialize, gather, and live in real environments, not theme parks.

Vicki D. Dugger
Executive Director, Oregon Downtown Development Association
Salem, OR

Jesse Walker replies: Jacobowitz misunderstands me. I didn't write that business improvement districts are "consensual." I wrote that they're "more consensual than most forms of public administration." The extent to which I think BIDs are a good idea -- and anyone who read the piece knows that I didn't exactly embrace them -- is the extent to which they represent a devolution of urban power. When the choice is between a business owner's property rights and a BID, I side with the business. When the choice is between having services delivered by a more local, responsive, and self-sustaining unit of government and having them delivered by city hall, BIDs look a bit better.

The quote from ODDA that I used describes a genuine source of conflict, but as Dugger notes, it is also quite old -- it dates back to 1988. I apologize if this led anyone to misconstrue the organization's current position.

Roy Moore's Monument

In her article on Judge Roy Moore's attempt to keep a monument to the Ten Commandments in Alabama's state judicial building ("Roy Moore's Monument," November), Cathy Young ignored the 10th Amendment. While some federal-power-grabbing Supreme Court justices may think that the 14th Amendment has overriding authority in this case, I disagree. We are not talking about laws or unfair administration of laws, but about a rock with words carved into it.

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