The Continuing Deception of Campaign “Sound Bites”

The Continuing Deception
of Campaign “Sound Bites”
By: Susan M. Halpern
(Addison councilmember 1992 – 99)

Todd Meier is running for mayor.  He doesn’t have an opponent, but he’s still campaigning.

In one of his no-opponent campaign pieces, Meier touts the fact that he cut Addison’s tax rate.  Meier also pledges that he will continue to cut Addison’s tax rate.  The first statement is misleading; the pledge to continue cutting Addison’s tax rate is dangerous and stunningly irresponsible.

Be clear about this: Meier is talking about Addison’s tax rate, not the actual taxes paid by Addison’s resident.  They are different.  The tax rate is only one component of the actual taxes we pay in Addison.  The other component is real property value.  Property value times tax rate equals the property taxes each of us pays.  From the Town’s standpoint, the total value of all taxable real property multiplied by the tax rate gives Addison the total tax revenue it will receive from its property.

So, a discussion of rate in isolation is only part of the story.  In fact, even if the tax rate decreases, you might actually pay more in taxes if your property value rises enough to offset the lower rate.  To have an honest discussion of taxes, then, you have to talk about both parts of the equation.

But it sounds inviting, doesn’t it?  And indeed, it’s a neat campaign trick.  After all, what’s really happening here is that Meier is telling people he’s cut their tax rate, knowing full well that what they hear him saying is that he’s cut their taxes.  But the truth is that Meier has not cut taxes.  It’s a classic Meier tactic: avoid imparting real and useful information in favor of misleading statements Meier perceives to be of benefit to him personally.  Another disservice to Addison amongst a long, long list.

And in fact, if we look at the data from Addison’s Annual Budgets over the years (available on Addison’s website, here with the Meier budgets bolded), the misleading nature of Meier’s claims comes into better focus. Here is a summary, starting with 2014-15 at the top, and working backwards to 2008-09 at the bottom:

Sue Article

The first thing you may notice is that all tax rates for the four Meier-led budget years are higher than what the rates were before Meier took office.  In fact, during Meier’s first budget cycle as mayor, 2011-12, the Meier-led Council raised the tax rate 9.43%, the largest single increase in the six years shown above.  Look as well at the property values.  In the two years before Meier was first elected, Addison’s land values plummeted by about 18% from just over $3.7 billion as of January 1, 2008 (the basis for the ’08-’09 budget) to $3.06 billion as of January 1, 2010 (the basis of the ’10-’11 budget).  In Meier’s first mayoral budget, the decrease continued but dramatically slowed to only 1%.  That was when Meier raised the tax rate 9.43% and, as shown on the chart, the property taxes paid by the average Addison homeowner increased by $81.22, or 6.8%.  From that point on, the value of Addison’s property recovered significantly.

Despite the increase in property values, during the four years Meier has led the budget process, the average total property taxes paid by homeowners in Addison (dollars, not rate) have actually increased from $1,194.80 in 2010-11 (pre-Meier as mayor) to $1,450.59 in 2014-15.  That’s an increase of 21.4%.  And, even as Meier has orchestrated modest reductions in the tax rate during the last two budget cycles, as referenced in his campaign “sound bite,” in actuality total property taxes paid by the average homeowner during that two year period increased from $1,265.53 in 2012-13 to $1,450.58 in 2014-15, an increase of just under 15%.

And, if you look at 2013-14, you see exactly what I described above: while there is a slight decrease in the tax rate, the property taxes paid by the average Addison homeowner actually increased by $189.03, the largest increase reflected in the years analyzed above.  And that’s why talking only about the tax rate can be so misleading.  Where is Meier’s discussion of the reasons for the increase in property taxes paid by the average Addison homeowner during the four years Meier has been mayor?

Consider as well that these property tax increases occurred even as Addison’s land values increased a total of 23.9%, starting with a 3.53% increase as of January 1, 2012 (used to budget for 2012-13, Meier’s second year as mayor).  This raises another important point, and that is that the consequences of a Council’s decision-making are often felt years later.  Here, the rise in property values reflects (a) the economic recovery and (b) the work of prior Councils who responsibly developed areas like Addison Circle and Vitruvian Park, both of which added significantly to Addison’s property value.  I doubt you’ll see the likes of those developments any time soon.  The Meier-led Council lacks the political courage to engage in that kind of innovative thinking and calculated risk-taking.  Theirs is a “sound bite” over substance approach.  If you doubt this, just watch the meeting where they rejected the spectacular AMLI project that was proposed for the area north of Beltline.  Or, for that matter, go back and watch the embarrassing blundering that occurred in connection with the Beltline Road utility undergrounding.  There, Meier led the Council to approve a multi-million dollar contract, only to cause them to rescind it weeks later.  After that, they met some more, a new Council was elected, then they decided to have a Town Hall meeting about it, then bring it back to Council again… and then finally approve it.  Again.

Make no mistake about it: the development community is watching this gong show.  They will grow increasingly reluctant to participate in it.  Back in the day, Addison was innovative and unique, but Meier is killing creativity with his tactics, and other communities are catching up.  Even as Meier led the Council to reject the AMLI development, Richardson was announcing a new mixed-use urban development.  Addison before Meier was always out front.  We on the Council listened to the experts – including our remarkable former City Secretary Carmen Moran – who had a vision for the future that we didn’t always see.  Meier and his group regularly ignore the experts and consultants.  Under Meier’s brand of “leadership,” Addison is losing its edge and losing its way.  You have to believe that if Meier had been in charge, Addison Circle and Vitruvian would have died in a series of endless, excruciating and pointless meetings.  Meier’s inefficient and spineless approach leaves many of us deeply concerned for Addison’s future.  The damage being done today will be felt for years to come.

Here’s the bottom line: while Meier’s campaign “sound bite” about lowering the tax rate is literally correct, it is misleading and ignores the reality of Addison’s tax situation.  The fact is that during Meier’s tenure, the average homeowner in Addison has experienced an increase in property taxes paid.  Perhaps there were reasons for this, but you don’t hear about them from Meier, who instead misleads Addison’s residents with his verbal sleight of hand.  As mayor of this Town, Meier owes Addison’s citizens honest dialog on these issues, rather than campaign “sound bites” that mischaracterize the record and impart no substantive information.

Let’s turn to Meier’s second campaign “sound bite,” the promise to continue decreasing the tax rate, and why it is so utterly irresponsible.  As described above, Addison is provided with information about the value of its property as of January first each year.  That information is used as the basis for the next fiscal year’s budget, which is passed 9 months later in September. At the same time, Addison looks at the question of the total tax revenue that will be needed to run the Town.  This includes not only fixed expenses, but also maintenance and special projects that need attention.  In broad terms, Addison compares the two, and then essentially backs into the tax rate.

This means that until you have a handle on (a) property value (which may include, for example, an analysis of who is protesting their value), and (b) what the Town’s expenditures will be for the upcoming year, it is arbitrary and irresponsible to suggest that you have already decided to cut the tax rate.  You just can’t know that in advance.

And here’s where responsibility meets political backbone.  It isn’t always in the Town’s best interest to cut the tax rate.  In fact, it isn’t always in the Town’s best interest to cut total taxes paid by residents.  There are times when things need fixing and expenditures are necessary and in the best interest of Addison.  These are hard decisions that may even be unpopular, but they are decisions that have to be made.  Being on Council means that you must have the political backbone to (a) be truthful in describing the substance of these difficult decisions, (b) be prepared to truthfully provide the basis on which you made them, and (c) explain why the decisions you made were in the best interest of Addison.  Because in the end, being on Council is about doing what’s best for Addison, not what is in the interest of individual councilmembers.  And this is the fundamental disconnect that Meier and his cohorts exemplify with their “sound bite” over substance approach to being on Council.  There is no better example than Meier’s no-opponent campaign piece about lowering the tax rate.

Putting it simply, it is abjectly irresponsible for Meier to commit in advance that he will continue to cut the tax rate.  What Meier should be saying is that he will engage in a responsible budgeting process, that he will make sound decisions with respect to the tax rate, and that he will honestly and thoroughly explain the basis for the positions he takes.  After all, Meier is supposed to be doing what’s best for Addison, not what’s best for his next campaign.  But then, doesn’t it speak volumes that Meier continually feels the need to shade and mischaracterize the facts?  In the end, Meier is remarkably incapable of having an honest dialog with Addison’s residents, and that is a significant disservice to our Town.

Now let’s talk about the consequences of the Meier-orchestrated single penny reduction in the tax rate.  And, specifically, let’s talk about what wasn’t accomplished so that the average Addison homeowner would receive a $3.97 reduction in property taxes, rather than an increase.

The answer is simple: Meier and his cadre once again refused to repair Addison’s embarrassing employee compensation problem.  At Meier’s hands, employee compensation has suffered markedly, with predictable results.  Addison continues to lose employees, and has difficulty attracting new employees.  Attrition in the police and fire departments has left Addison with earnest but unquestionably less experienced safety employees.  It is difficult to attract qualified candidates for police and fire.  In one instance, a job in the Finance Department sat vacant for almost two years, because it was impossible to find anyone willing to accept the inferior compensation package being offered.  The fact is that it is impossible for Addison to compete for employees when they can move to comparable cities and make more money. And that’s before you get to the intangible issues of the Meier-led culture of blame that has undermined confidence and morale amongst Addison’s under-valued staff members.

This past budget cycle gave the Meier-led and -dominated Council the perfect opportunity to address employee compensation.  They had information provided by a consultant who was hired to study Addison’s employee compensation, including by comparing it to nearby benchmark communities.  One of his conclusions was that Addison’s employee compensation was, by and large, not even at the average of comparable employees in benchmark communities.  The consultant recommended more funding and a better defined compensation philosophy.  Meier and his cronies on the Council ignored it all.

After the initial draft budget was circulated, containing numbers as directed by Meier and the Council, the safety employees raised a ruckus.  Meier received a very strongly-worded letter and realized quickly that he couldn’t win a public relations battle with the police and fire departments.  So he relented and directed the City Manager to add funding to the budget to bring safety employees to a position more closely resembling the average.  But that left all the other employees behind, and that’s where the single penny comes in.  Meier had the opportunity to maintain the tax rate and devote revenues from that one cent to Addison’s employees.  He refused, and thereby created the misleading campaign “sound bite” about lowering the tax rate.

I served on Addison’s Council for seven years, from 1992-1999.  I found the experience interesting, challenging and sometimes gut wrenching.  The Councils I served on worked together to do what was best for Addison.  We argued and debated, but above all, we always committed ourselves to a positive deliberative process.  I cannot think of a single instance in which I believed a member of Council voted a certain way because of an upcoming election.  It was never about us, it was always about what was best for Addison.

The Meier-led Councils have turned that model on its head, and this nonsense about Addison’s tax rate is a prime example.  The Council could have and should have addressed the serious issues with employee compensation.  They had the consultant that our tax dollars paid for telling them that they needed to do so.  That single penny in the tax rate would have provided enough tax revenue to make a big dent in the employee compensation problem.  But for Meier, it was more important to create a campaign “sound bite.”  So, Meier led this Council to a different result.

To say that Addison deserves more from Meier and this Council is an understatement.  Meier and his circle of four have continued to make their time on Council about themselves, rather than what’s best for Addison.  In making his misleading statements about Addison’s tax rate, Meier continues his track record of misinforming Addison’s residents.

Addison’s citizens need to become more vocal in fighting back against Meier’s tactics.  On the issues discussed herein, we encourage Addison residents to attend meetings and demand to know why Meier would make such misleading and irresponsible statements, and why he continues to leave important issues like employee compensation unaddressed.

Let’s demand a truthful and informative dialog from this Council, and decisions that reflect the best interests of Addison, not personal agendas.