Who owns the sidewalks in your town or village or city? Sewers? Water supply lines? Treatment plants?
If you live in a medium or large city, and the airport is not privately owned, who owns it?
By “owns it” we mean has the right to sell it or borrow against its value? We know if we own something we can sell it – or pawn it – or mortgage it – or lease it out. We can even give it away.
Americans have multiple claims on various public assets. First and foremost we are Americans and the United States owns a lot of assets. We are also citizens of either a state or a district or a protectorate and those entities also own a lot of assets. Ditto for our cities/villages/towns and our counties and our school districts and park districts.
All of these public entities hold title to lots of public assets. Mostly, our biggest owned asset is land and everything beneath the surface.
Can these public assets be sold or pawned or mortgaged or given away without the citizens having a say-so?
The most significant asset any governmental entity has is its power to tax – future tax receipts. That asset is the basis of the municipal bond market – lenders will turn their money over to a government entity today because they know that the government will be able to forcibly remove taxpayer funds forever – or at least until the tax base (people and property) leave, die or just go broke – see Detroit.
But there are some catches with taxes – one is called elections. Taxpayers have this nasty habit of getting rid of politicians who raise taxes or find new ways to collect fees and other forms of revenues from taxpayers. Not so though with public assets. Those deals can be very subtle – not noticed – behind the scenes. The politicians can get away with disposing of public assets with little or no exposure. They are doing it now – as you read these words.
No one ever said the recently retired mayor Daley of Chicago was bright as in smart, intelligent or savvy. No one ever said he was honest – not corrupt. No one ever said he was clever in a strategic way – what he was and many did say this was that he was a machine politician who kept jobs under his control to feed out to those who did his bidding. Ditto for contracts for city goods and services – just do his bidding you might get a contract. Ditto for votes – if you wanted something as simple as garbage pickup – do his bidding.
What did he do when it came to all the public employees and all their salaries and all their benefits and all their pensions? Well, after he raised taxes to the point that some neighborhoods were collapsing and after he raised fees to the point where there was no proportionality between the cost of the fee and the purpose of the fee and after he raised fines everyway conceivable – cameras and $200 parking fines and so on, what did he do?
He sold public assets. He actually sold the city’s parking meters – he sold the future revenue stream, for 75 years. Now go back a few paragraphs – do you remember what no one ever said about his brain power? Daley got taken to the cleaners by some smarty pants bankers and investors who tied his shorts in a knot while still on his stubby behind. They gave him pennies on the dollar for Chicago’s parking meters and then the voters found out that he was a chump. So what did he do? He quit – retired – took a gigantic pension and left the taxpayers with a 75 year lousy parking meter deal. Oh, he did one more thing – the badly discounted proceeds he got for the parking meters? He spent it before he left. To keep the minions that work for the city happy for a few more weeks.
In the Detroit bankruptcy – underway right now – the unions are trying to get their hands on every public asset and convert it to pay their pensions and other claims. They are even trying to get the art collection accumulated over 100 years – in many cases donated to the city by donors who wished those assets to be forever available to the citizens for their viewing and enjoyment. The unions want the cash – they have hired lawyers to get the assets and then cash the assets in.
As our towns and cities and states run out of money, bad actors like Daley will sell assets and stick the citizens with bad deals. Some will even benefit directly – others will do what Daley did – try to keep the public employee unions happy for a few more months and then cash in on their pension and leave. It is happening in many towns and cities this very minute.
There oughta be a law against any politician, representative, bureaucrat, even a stupid mayor, from selling any public asset, anywhere, anytime. They don’t belong to them – they belong to us, and our kids, and their kids. Does your city, state, park district have such a law? Does your country?