Strange rift between council, chamber

Strange rift between council, chamber

What's really predictable is discord between those who levy taxes and those who pay them.

Local chamber of commerce officials, acting in response to their members' concerns, recently took complaints about a series of tax and fee increases to the city council in Champaign.

That's not a particularly surprising act on the chamber's part; what was surprising was the reaction from Mayor Don Gerard and council member Tom Bruno.

Shut up, they explained.

Gerard and Bruno said they were just a little tired of chamber officials, in this case chamber board President Michael Wozniak, opposing their plans for tax increases and urging chamber members to contact council members and suggest they vote no.

Mayor Gerard said he "can't listen" to chamber complaints about the adverse effect tax and fee hikes have on individual businesses and the overall business climate in Champaign. Bruno expressed resentment about the chamber's stance in opposition to tax increases, calling them "as predictable as anything can be predictable."

Furthermore, Gerard complained, why doesn't the chamber address issues that extend beyond the chamber's traditional area of interest, like supporting the city library or the Big Broadband project?

Frankly, we expect better out of Bruno. But both elected officials seem to be missing the point of what the chamber does and ought to be doing. Further, the fact that they take offense at an organization's opposition to more and higher taxes demonstrates a real disconnect from reality.

We appreciate that the ongoing lousy economy — first a devastating recession and now a lethargic recovery — puts pressure on both the private and public sectors.

But the city of Champaign is not going to go out of business. Many of the businesses that belong to the chamber are fighting to survive. Frankly, it would be surprising if chamber members didn't oppose the slew of tax increases council members have been hurling down like Zeus on Mount Olympus.

Wozniak appeared before the council to express concerns about what he called a "structural deficit" in the city's budget that might result in further tax increases.

Don't be confused by that highfalutin term. A structural deficit occurs when a governmental entity is intent on spending more money than it brings in.

There's no doubt that Champaign, like every other governmental unit, has been hurt by declining revenues that reflect a weak economy. But so has everyone else, and the private sector doesn't have the option to order revenue increases in the former of higher motor fuel taxes, higher sales tax and higher property taxes.

Frankly, Wozniak is correct when he points out that continued tax increases contribute to a weak business climate. How could they do otherwise? Council member Bruno suggested it's unhelpful to mention that, but what's really unhelpful is to ignore a problem by refusing to recognize it.

This, of course, is not just a city/chamber issue. The city may levy higher taxes on businesses, but businesses pass their costs on to customers in the form of higher prices or on to employees in lower wages. That's Economics 101.

It's understandable that city officials would prefer that everyone applaud their actions. Government in the face of little or no opposition is always easier. But that's not the nature of our democratic system.

It's also not in the nature of our democratic system for an organization formed for one purpose to take on additional, unrelated responsibilities.

Chamber members who want to support the library are free to join the Friends of the Library or make their own individual contributions to the library foundation. Members of the Sierra Club who want to be involved in business or agriculture issues can join the chamber or the farm bureau.

To blame an organization formed to focus on one set of issues for not focusing on issues unrelated to its purpose is nonsensical.

The chamber is not always right. In our view, it's sometimes far too timid. But whether its stance on higher taxes is predictable or not, it's representing its members.

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