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Business Observer Friday, Jul. 27, 2007 15 years ago

How to destroy a fairy tale

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Government, and too many citizens, are ready to kill a great story.

REVIEW & COMMENT

How to destroy a fairy tale

by: Rod Thomson, Executive Editor

Government, and too many citizens, are ready to kill a great story.

Let's pretend the Gulf Coast's economy is a fairy tale. It's not far from the truth.

There once was a beautiful land of Sun and Plenty with beaches, no income tax and plentiful jobs that attracted millions of people suffering in other lands. The economy boomed. People bought homes, started businesses and created jobs. Crime was low. More people moved in, and the little land of plenty opened its arms to bountiful opportunities.

But grumbling began among some people already in the land of Sun and Plenty. "We like it the way it was. Close the gate!" they began to cry. They got theirs and wanted to stop progress and hope for others.

Then more people, failing in personal responsibility, began demanding that the government of Sun and Plenty provide what they need, or want, and could not or would not get on their own. "Give us food! Give us housing! Give us transportation! Baby-sit our children! Give us health care! Give us sports! Give us entertainment!"

Other people demanded that huge amounts of land that held hope for people be blocked from ever having housing or jobs.

New people were elected to the government commissions overseeing Sun and Plenty who responded to these cries. They began to clamp down on what could be built and where, and they created a governing structure more extensive than the church and more intrusive than the family. Life for the productive became much more expensive and burdensome.

Businesses began to suffer under the weight of the regulations and taxes, so the government had to make special offers to lure businesses, because Sun and Plenty was no longer so plentiful.

And people demanded still more. Government shifted more money to meeting the demands of everyone who wanted something. That meant taking money from the few basic things that it should have been doing. People kept moving, although it slowed down some. But roads were not built because money was spent on sports and child care and entertainment and oh so many things that the government was never intended to be responsible for doing.

Because land became scarce, and taxes were heaped on housing, it became expensive just to buy a home when once it was relatively cheap.

People were now complaining about road congestion and ever more grumbling about stopping more people from coming to the land of Sun and Plenty.

The loudest complainers began demanding a moratorium on new construction, which would stop growth and opportunities in a once wonderful economy. And governments again responded. Some people even wanted to be able to decide for themselves what someone else's land could be used for, again to stop construction.

And the economy buckled and strained, and the land of Sun and Plenty mostly only had sun left.

Fair tale reality

We are nearing the tragic end of this fairy tale.

Government leaders and the citizenry that empowers them must knock the scales from their eyes and see the impending economic destruction that will follow: an expensive, stagnant land of few haves, have-nots who take out their garbage and press their clothes, a non-existent middle class and a brain drain of youth who cannot afford to live and work in this land of Sun.

A major course change is required And that starts with the pounding heart of freedoms and principles that will ensure a sound economy. Such an economy needs a few basic things from government, then mostly government needs to get out of the way.

• Freedom. This is the basic constitutional freedom to own, buy and sell property and do with it what an owner wants within simple boundaries.

• Infrastructure. This includes roads, water, sewers, electricity and other essentials necessary for an economy to function.

• Taxes. The more the government takes, the less entrepreneurs and businesses will invest to create wealth and the less the citizenry will have to produce and expand the economy even more.

• Security. A community where the threat of crime is low makes for an attractive place to live and do business.

The report card on these basics is just dismal. The fairy tale is on the verge of turning into a Stephen King novel for the economy. We only have a passing grade on security, and a big part of that is demographic.

On freedom, eminent domain remains one of the most basic threats to property rights. Charlotte County officials proved just that as they used this unique power to force thousand of acres to be sold to a developer - for a loss. So Charlotte County taxpayers not only saw the dreadful power of the government, they will have to pay for the bad bargain in the deal.

Beyond eminent domain, the more common and insidious loss of land freedoms comes from zoning laws and land-use regulations that have become increasingly onerous.

Infrastructure: Conventional wisdom says only government can build and manage our infrastructure. But look how poorly it does. Sarasota County is the most perfidious Gulf Coast government for holding road-building hostage to higher taxes and anti-growth interests. Roads are clogged because the county chooses to spend money elsewhere and anti-growthers think that if you don't build roads, "they" won't come. Insanity personified.

Property taxes, levied by counties and cities, became such a crisis that the Legislature stepped in and mandated cuts. Municipalities simply wouldn't.

But it is not only property taxes. The array of fees, assessments and skyrocketing impact fees all work to drive up costs for everyone and lead to less economic growth and prosperity.

The main thing the region still has going for it is Mother Nature. Second is the lack of an income tax.

This is really basic stuff. Why don't elected leaders understand such elementary economics?

The enemies of a strong economy - and a stunning number of them sit in elected seats along the Gulf Coast - seem oblivious to their killing of a fairy tale land for millions.

Two immediate threats

St. Pete Beach is ground zero in what is benignly called Hometown Democracy. This all-American sounding movement is all but American. It seeks to require a public vote by referendum for any major land-use changes through a city or county comprehensive plan.

It is compromising enough that elected officials make decisions on what a property owner can do with his property often based on what they like. But Hometown Democracy would allow anti-growthers, unhappy neighbors and others to create NIMBY on steroids.

If you don't like a use of the land that is proposed, for any lofty or banal reason, you vote against it. Land-use by mob mentality. Or, as land-use attorney Deborah Martohue puts it: "Planning decisions will be made on bumper stickers." She predicts that if this movement takes hold statewide, Florida will spiral into a full-blown recession, and it is difficult to argue with that assessment.

Changes, growth and progress will be blocked by the anti-growth cranks who operate under the rubric: "Don't change anything. I like it just the way it is, even if it isn't mine."

This is a full-throttle assault on economic vitality, private property rights, urban renewal and any hope of affordable housing. It is the law in St. Pete Beach, and there is a move to make it part of Florida's constitution. The potential damage is almost incalculable.

And then there is the Collier County Commission's moratorium. It's hard to know if the commissioners are actually malicious or just reality blind. Not a lot of other alternatives present themselves for such decisions at such a time.

The commission voted 3-2 to approve a moratorium on all new construction in Collier County - a phenomenally dangerous move. Fortunately, a 4-1 supermajority was needed to enact such a draconian measure. It is not clear if those in the majority knew it would not pass and were just playing politics. But when playing with fire, such as eliminating a pillar of the economy, someone is going to get burned. More than likely, a lot of people.

We need more than just a change in leadership. We need a new mindset from the silent masses, and this includes business leaders who know the right thing to do but stay mum while the Luddites lead us to the Land of Less.

Rod Thomson is executive editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review and can be reached at [email protected].

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