Comedy night at the county commission
December 22, 2006
Last Thursday was comedy night at the county commission. The prize was $27.4 million of taxpayer money. The game was to determine whether taxpayers get to keep their money, or if given away who would receive it and what actions were necessary to win how much of the prize. Contestants were a businessman with the county executive on his side, and members of the public at large on the taxpayer side, and the five commissioners performing ostensibly as independent judges to determine who presented the best lines and was worthy of the prize. There was much argument over what actions would trigger payments, where the money would come from, and how the prize would be distributed and to whom. Some including one judge questioned if the businessman was qualified to be in the contest but the other judges brushed the challenge aside after hearing his brilliant defense of “what you see is what you get.” One taxpayer contestant pointed out that his past record was less than what we could see, but his lines impressed no one.
Many contestants presented their routines on behalf of the taxpayers but for the most part their acts were duds, unconvincing to the judges, some of whom barely hid their boredom, so that members of the audience whispered among themselves, “Was the outcome fixed in advance?” “Which ones are on which side?” Some contestants tried to engage the judges but those stalwarts avoided being drawn into any of the routines. Excitement mounted as each contestant presented his act, looking hopefully at each judge in turn for a glimmer of amusement or even interest. The county executive pointed out that if the businessman creates a 30,000-square-foot building and leased 25,000 square feet of it for some commercial purpose, it could attract other business persons to create 20 times his 30,000-square-foot floorspace from which taxpayers could easily reap $34 million in rewards over and above their $27.4 million of prize money if devoted to retail producing at least 75 percent taxable sales.
This contestant engaged the county executive to confirm before the judges that the $27.4 million prize could very possibly be won by the businessman if he invested no more than $5 to $7 million in his own creation. The county executive agreed but noted while he would profit $20 million or more he might reinvest it in the larger project and other businessmen would be drawn to invest even without incentives solely because of the wonder of the location and the businessman’s reputation. The jokes flew but nobody laughed. The judges were becoming restless.
Others joked about the serious weaknesses in the legal agreement. The district attorney intoned that his contract expert didn’t have a problem with the obvious weaknesses. One contestant tried a routine based on the hilarious concept that most serious mall developers would have legal commitments in hand from anchor stores and others sufficient to attract lenders, and that the businessman acknowledged there were no such commitments so far. That was really funny. Nobody laughed but a sob was heard from somewhere in the audience.
When all the contestants completed their acts, several judges weighed in on how they would render their verdicts. One judge noted that this was his last stint as judge and everybody should understand that his vote would be objective on the merits. With a clear profit of $20 million at stake, the audience rolled in laughter, the most amusing routine up to that point. Another of the long-time commissioners offered that previous contests like this caused money to pour into taxpayer coffers. The audience, knowing that he not long ago voted twice to extract new taxes and fees from taxpayers, again expressed their mirth. The $20 million was at stake, and again a lonely sob was heard. Another judge rendered his opinion that there was no risk to taxpayers since payments would only be paid from taxes generated, notwithstanding previous confirmation from county executive that payments were not dependent on new taxes generated. The audience held their sides with laughter. Finally the vote came: the worthy businessman was awarded his chance to net $20 million, with only one vote for the taxpayers. The audience was strangely silent. Had they expected anything else? How would the businessman spend his windfall? Only the Shadow knows but not for several years.
The next day in The Record-Courier, a former county commissioner weighed in with another hilarious story about how the taxpayer was free of risk as payments were contingent on property tax increases generated by the businessman and others still to be attracted. Guess he never read the agreement defining how the $20 million could be won. Ignorance can be bliss, but only tragically funny.
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n Jack Van Dien is a Sunridge resident.