COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | DANIEL COFFEY

A pork chop around every neck

The classic “ugly” joke goes: "I was so ugly as a child they hung a pork chop around my neck so the dog would play with me." Who knew that would become a sound municipal governing principle?

Apparently the leaders of San Diego think it is unattractive enough that they, in loco parentis for the municipal corporation of San Diego, were forced to tie a pork chop around its neck.

The city of San Diego recently voted unanimously to provide $1.5 million worth of tax breaks for a highly successful company that was considering moving locations as part of an expansion.

The company needed a little something extra to remain in San Diego and wasn’t afraid to ask because others elsewhere were offering a little something extra too. A bidding war of sorts apparently broke out, an auction-style event where the winner is the auctioned.

So why not give an exceptional company some tax and administrative breaks, a benefit that sounds like it lowers taxes, even as it merely shifts the actual burdens to others and creates a class of entities that enjoy benefits not offered to other citizens?

Let’s face it, there is no end to the special privileges a class of companies or individuals might seek, no limit to the benefits they might wish or be granted, and no door that can’t be opened quickly under the right circumstances.

Preferences and advantages for the successful and privileged sounds like a formula for civic success. After all, what does noblesse oblige truly mean?

We, the remaining citizens will, of course, be extremely happy, dare I say overjoyed, to add a gift to the heaping pile of advantages for one company in order to have the humble privilege of knowing they are ravenously availing themselves of the benefits we have provided through our tax dollars. They will be conferred the status of special lodgers at the inn. Nothing is too good for them.

The entire notion of specialized tax holidays has grown into an industry all its own, wherein the public effectively pays private entities to come and, at reduced cost, take advantage of the services provided by the community.

The prime excuse or justification most often proudly offered is that the companies are providing jobs, good paying jobs.

New York state is advertising a 10-year tax-free hiatus for new businesses. Those New Yorkers who can’t leave, foot the bill for the newly mobilized entities. Is that fair?

Similarly, Texas does a state-to-state tour inviting companies to come and enjoy their tax advantages, sweltering summer weather and other amenities associated with a geography bathed in monsoonal weather. Similarly, Tennessee fawns over likely prospects.

Now, where does the line form for other San Diego businesses that provide jobs to get their tax breaks and other preferred treatment?

How does one distinguish between the really worthy businesses and the lesser in the category? If you provide just regular old living-wage jobs, then are you not entitled to special treatment? Do you need to contribute to a special fund, campaign, charity or person in order to gain advantage? What is the formula?

Special treatment in a democratic environment via an organization chartered as a municipal corporation for all its citizens raises a whole host of questions. Where in San Diego’s civic charter does it provide that the municipal corporation is actually a civic piggybank of privileges and benefits for the privileged?

One might have thought that a municipal corporation operating under a charter would look to the charter to find the authorization for such behavior. No doubt it’s hidden in the fine print.

It seems that cities, counties and states are now acting as clearinghouse agents providing the privileged with more privileges, shifting the remaining burden to the remainder of the population, all on the theory that we collectively need to pay one group to remain in our midst.

There is no doubt that the poor and middle-class should provide those best off with ever-greater advantages; that approach has led to a level of joy for the few and an enormous concentration of wealth.

This selective and exclusive approach to governance is fraught with moral peril, but it seems that many elected officials now see the task of keeping certain kinds of companies and people in town as among their principal public obligations.

When will schools of higher learning provide a special curriculum centered on shifting benefits and burdens using municipal and state entities? Course titles might include: “When is enough far too little?” or “Should we include special gifts of public monies, too?” or “Can my second cousin get a tax break?” or “How corruption can be good for the economy!”

From “a chicken in every pot” to a pork chop around every neck — now that’s progress!


Coffey is an attorney based in San Diego. He can be reached at daniel.coffey@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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