September 23, 2013 | 1
I’m learning lessons by the bushel basket this fall, on account of I’m getting the chance to officially do something I’ve long done unofficially: beg for the opportunity to pay more taxes.
See, here in Raleigh, where I live, we’re floating two bonds if voters approve them in October: $810 million for the schools (a countywide bond) and $75 million for transportation — roads, sidewalks, bike lanes, bus shelters, and stuff like that.
I’ve explained rather fully just this week my support for taxes for keeping up our infrastructure, and I’ve done it before too, many times. But this fall, as a longtime supporter of infrastructure, I was tapped by the locals to become a member of the Friends of the Transportation Bond. We have a website and facebook page and all that. We do yard signs. We do events. And above all we ask people to vote in favor of taking advantage of our AAA bond rating and borrowing money as cheaply as it can be borrowed so we can … well, so we can have things like roads.
Remember the old 60s bumpersticker? “It will be a great day when the schools have all the money they need and the Navy has to hold a bake sale to build a battleship”? I now go around to community councils and neighborhood groups and explain to them that it’s a GOOD thing to pave your streets and provide another way to get there — sidewalks, bike, bus. It’s like a bake sale, only I just ask for money — I don’t give them cookies. They get roads instead.
As I said, I’ve talked like this before — and once you’re the type of person who comes out to neighborhood and community functions you’re already self-selecting for being in favor of things like pooling money together for our greater good, even if that does sound dangerously socialist. So I’ve enjoyed my little speaking tour, and to be honest I’m very hopeful that our citizens will support the idea of spending an absurdly small amount of money — about $33 per year if you have a house worth $300,000 — to improve our community.
But I’m also noticing — and thinking about — less straightforward aspects of this whole business of interacting with the taxpayers and the community and urging it to act in its own best interest. People who do this stuff all the time have thought it through. For example, we’re having what is called a “pop-up” campaign for the bond. The vote is Oct. 8, and only Sept. 23 did we have our launching press event. The weekend before we sneaked around town putting up the yard signs you can see. The idea is twofold: first, people won’t get sick of us, and apparently much of the effort spent in getting your message across before the last couple weeks leading to the election are mostly wasted. Second, this leaves virtually no time for organized opposition. There shouldn’t be much — how do you come out against streets, anyhow, plus we had no fewer than four current or past mayors onstage today urging us to pay up.
The long-term thinkers tell us also that though signs on public throughways will be seen by more people, signs on front lawns have more clout: if it’s on your lawn, you’re taking ownership. Along the streets? That could be just a bunch of people running around planting them. Like we did last weekend.
The school bond people are having a slightly different time of it. Schools are more heavily politicized (transportation would be too if we were planning to spend a greater portion of the money for things like transit and bike paths), and so the county GOP came out and took a stand against raising money for schools: “Wake GOP leaders said their opposition to the bond was based on their views on the Democratic majority on the school board and not so much on the bond itself,” according to the News & Observer of Raleigh. Which sounds ugly, and it is ugly.
Which brings up my main observation in the process so far: saying “no” just, basically, because, is ugly. I took this composite of the two yard signs about the bonds. Above is the yes. It has a little graphic, a pencil that fairly radiates “schoolkids.” It has nice pretty greens and blues, the color of skies and trees. It even gives you information: “The smart way to pay,” meaning that a county with a great bond rating does well by itself borrowing to build its infrastructure, especially infrastructure like schools that it’s legally obligated to provide. The no is below: harsh black and yellow, it calls it like it sees it: no, just no, did you hear me? No. It’s even in a nice shouty all caps — NO — unlike the gentler, cap/lowercase Yes.
Our own yard sign for the transportation bond — you can see it above — was just as carefully thought out. Again with the pretty blues and greens, and the road people will be happy — a car! a bus! lots of paving! — but we’ve sneaked in no fewer than four other people using their muscles for movement, including one on a bike. No sidewalks — it got in the way of the website URL — but the sign shows everything Raleigh, with its emphasis on the complete streets development model, wants to show. The roads get you from your house to where you’re going, and there’s room for everybody.
Anyhow, in a couple weeks we’ll learn what worked this time. Whether blue and green beat black and yellow, whether people like paying for what they need, whether you can reach people through pictures, through signs, through language. I’ll keep you posted.