Low Taxes Do Not A Community Make

A good friend recently sold his parents' home in Grand Rapids as it became too much for his elderly mother to care for. The house wasn't on the market for a day or two before an eager buyer snapped it up at the family's asking price.

Why? The home is located in one of the city's best school districts. If that deal had fallen through, others would have lined up for the property.

It's an illustrative lesson for this community as officials from Traverse City Area Public Schools regroup in the wake of last November's school bond millage defeat. For the first time in recent memory, Traverse City school district voters failed to support a bond issue and did so by a wide margin.

There were a variety of factors at work, including a still-sluggish economy and some major outlays rolled into the proposal including a new performing arts center.

School representatives can bridge the divide with the public and the business community by doing more legwork up front. Better dialogue – and listening on all sides – can lead to an affordable capital plan worthy of community support that includes the resources needed to keep our schools competitive.

One chasm that's not likely to be crossed, however, is winning over those with the view that all our aging schools need is some plaster and a fresh coat of paint. It's a short-sighted mindset that wants to maintain low taxes at nearly any cost – whether it involves roads, public recreation facilities, social safety nets or the structures and equipment needed to educate our young people.

Is that really the best vision for the Grand Traverse area? Check out some places around the country that "boast" some of the lowest local tax rates. They also feature some of the highest poverty counts, offer abysmal public education systems and pull down some of the strongest "misery" ratings around the U.S.

What good are rock-bottom local taxes if all they can pay for is minimal infrastructure and poor schools in places no one wants to live?

That's not what put Traverse City on the map. This region was among Michigan's bright spots during a decade-long economic downturn. As difficult as it was for many, this area stayed the course and continued to support its community institutions and infrastructure. As the region and state continue a fragile but tangible recovery, it's more important than ever to continue building on the cornerstones that have made this region a special part of the mitten state.

It's all pretty basic – good schools are good for homeowners whether or not they have children in school. Good schools help the wealthy and the poor. They're also good for business, and have a positive impact on property values across the board. They strengthen the talent pool of young families moving to the area.

Of course it all comes at a cost – but the critics never talk about the steeper costs and long-term consequences of letting public infrastructure deteriorate.

It's incumbent on TCAPS to create a progressive capital plan that can gain the trust and support of the community – not a watered-down proposal to mollify the no-tax naysayers that fails to include first-rate facilities and technology. TCAPS also needs to challenge its staff to better support its capital plans, and not make it a wedge for unrelated labor issues at the state and local level.

The community can get this right. It has to. Nothing will take the shine off this region faster than failing to support our youth and schools. If that's allowed to happen, local taxes will be the least of our problems.

Bill O'Brien is a staff writer and researcher for the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. Email him at bill@tcchamber.org

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