Palm Bay Police Chief Says City Isn’t Collecting Enough Taxes to Respond to Crimes

September 25, 2008

When a public official is faced with a budget cut, he is likely resort to the “Washington Monument Ploy.” As my colleague Joe Henchman explained earlier this year:

A threatened agency, instead of trying to become more efficient, warns that it will have to cut or shut down the most popular service under its control. The name comes from the National Park Service, which gets Congress to approve budget hikes by warning that it would have to cut hours at the Washington Monument.

In this vein, Police Chief Bill Berger of Palm Bay, Florida, (pop. 100,116) has announced that his officers may stop responding to burglaries where the owner failed to lock his home or car. According to the local CBS affiliate, Berger blames insufficient tax revenues for the city’s inability to provide a police response to such crimes:

Other surrounding agencies—such as Melbourne Police Department—continue to respond to similar vehicle break-in calls.

Berger, however, pointed out that his agency has been hit hard by higher fuel costs and a cut in revenue. Earlier this year, Berger implemented a number of cost-saving efforts, including a no-idling policy for patrol cars.

“Certainly, Amendment 1 had an impact,” Berger said, referring to the sweeping, statewide property-tax ballot item voters approved earlier this year. “The big promise was that it wouldn’t affect public safety, but it has.”

Amendment 1 is not without its problems. Particularly, it made Florida’s tax system less neutral and transparent by giving additional protections to homesteaders over other owners of property. Favorable tax treatment for primary residences distorts consumer decision-making about property ownership; it hides the tax burden by increasing reliance on commercial property taxes, which are ultimately passed through to individuals; and it blunts political incentives to control the tax burden overall.

However, whether Amendment 1 is distortionary is a separate question from whether the City of Palm Bay collects enough tax revenue to provide essential services. One clue in answering that question is to note that, while the police department complains that it is being squeezed, the Palm Bay Community Center touts such recent upgrades as a renovated weight room, a new scoreboard, “new carpeting on the mezzanine” (!), and even a Nintendo Wii for all to use. Palm Bay residents may avail themselves of this fabulous facility for just $55 per year.

Palm Bay residents should not be fooled by the Washington Monument trick. A good rule of thumb is this: if your city’s government still offers jazzercise and scrapbooking classes, then it still has all the money it needs.

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