An update to a hyper local story in my hometown is useful for participants in the American form of government across the nation.
Despite all the cynicism about politics, the insistence that the politicians are indifferent to the moods of voters, it turns out elections really do matter.
First, some back story.
Earlier this year state lawmakers in Bismarck passed a bill – HB1471, introduced by state Rep. Dan Ruby (R-Minot) – which stops cities from charging more for building permits in extraterritorial zones than in their normal jurisdictions. In its original form it prohibited cities from implementing “a regulation on any section of unincorporated territory which is more restrictive than an existing regulation in the city exercising the jurisdiction,” but it was watered down in its final form so that it only applies to building permits.
The genesis for the legislation was a situation which saw the City of Minot charging a woman double for a building permit.
The woman, Patti Eisenzimmer, is not a citizen of Minot. She cannot vote in city elections. But she does live in the city’s extraterritorial zoning area – territory right outside the city’s limits – and so is obligated to pay the city for building permits and abide by other regulations the city applies to the jurisdiction.
Extraterritorial zoning areas are bunk. They allow local elected leaders to, among other things, raise revenue without the accountability of the ballot box. It didn’t matter to Minot officials that people like Eisenzimmer were upset at paying double for building permits, because what were they going to do about it? They cannot vote in city elections.
When Ruby’s legislation passed, Minot Mayor Shaun Sipma did some bellyaching to local media.
“As was explained to the Legislature, the City subsidizes its planning and building permits fees with property taxes,” Sipma told the Minot Daily News. “Those in the ETA don’t pay property taxes and so the City imposed a surcharge to make up the cost difference. It was simply a reasonable effort to make sure the cost of our government is paid by those who access and utilize our services.”
The cost of government services should, absolutely, be tied as closely as possible to the people using them. Sipma is right about that.
Which brings us, finally, to the point of this post. The city council has now raised the cost of building permits for everyone, both in the city and in the extraterritorial zone. It’s not double the cost, as the extraterritorial people were paying, but about a 50 percent increase.
“These residential building permit fees have not been increased over 25 years. Goodness knows that our costs are increasing,” council member Stephan Podrygula is quoted as saying by the Minot Daily. “So I think this is a classic example of deferred maintenance, in a sense – deferred maintenance in the sense of maintaining the city’s financial stability. For 25 years, we’ve been offering services for much less than they cost to deliver, and I think that has to stop.”
City leaders have been aware of this situation with building permits for some time. Decades, it seems, from the quote above. They were trying to get away with closing that gap between the cost and price of permits by passing it off on a group of people who cannot vote in city elections. Only when that avenue was closed to them did they do the right, if politically uncomfortable, thing and raise the cost of building permits.
When politicians are acting on people who have no recourse, who cannot vote for them, they can be downright abusive. When forced to limit their taxing and regulating to jurisdiction which does elect them they behave much differently.