On Renewing the PARC Tax

Cards on the table: I plan to vote yes on renewing the PARC tax for ten more years. In this post I’ll explain. I’ll also list and respond to some of the reasons I hear for opposition or skepticism about its renewal.

(We’re on the opinion and analysis side of AFelection.info now. If you only come for information, be advised that any information you find below is marshaled to persuade, not merely to inform.)

What Is the PARC Tax?

Several years ago, the Utah Legislature made it legal for cities to charge an additional 0.1% sales tax, if the funds are dedicated to park, recreation, arts, and cultural (PARC) programs. That’s one penny on ten dollars. It has different acronyms in different cities; you’ll see it called a RAP tax too. In the 2014 election American Fork voters approved such a proposal, about 55% to 45%. I voted for it then too.

Since then, over $6.4 million in PARC tax revenues have flowed into American Fork. Most of this came from out-of-town shoppers. We’ve seen substantial upgrades to Art Dye Park, among others, as well as a flowering of arts programs. (For example, the latter includes a series of free chamber music concerts, which begins this October in the American Fork Library rotunda.)

Overall, so far, 60% of PARC grants have gone to parks and recreation programs; 40% have gone to arts and cultural programs. Details are available at afparc.org.

Why I Vote Yes to Renew the PARC Tax

I have several reasons for liking the PARC tax, apart from my own, my family’s, and my neighbors’ enjoyment of all four letters in the acronym: P, A, R, and C.

  • I like a local funding source that is dedicated by law to parks, arts, recreation, and culture. Stable funding is crucial to excellent, sustainable programs. If some local officials will put road maintenance on the chopping block and short-change police funding to avoid raising taxes, as we saw 15-25 years ago, no funding that is not dedicated is secure.
  • I remember the unmaintained, even undeveloped condition of many American Fork parks just 20 years ago. This inspired residents to take up (political) arms and push through a bond issue to develop and upgrade parks.
  • Call me selfish, but I love how much of the money comes from people who don’t live in American Fork. We put up with, er, welcome them and their vehicles, and they help fund our quality of life.
  • There’s an admirable civic generosity in funding programs in such a way that residents of limited means can participate. Some could not, if everything were solely funded by its own fees. Their participation is good for them and for the community.
  • I like that we’re conspicuously funding not just parks and recreation programs, but also arts and culture programs. Sometimes the latter are far lower priorities.
  • We could chat about what arts funding looked like in American Fork ten and twenty years ago. As our approach has been modernized, systematized, and rationalized — not to universal delight, I know — I think I’ve seen improvement in programs overall and a solid foundation for future improvement. The PARC tax has been a key part of this evolution.
  • I like the emphasis on PARC grant recipients finding significant funding from other sources, not just the City.
  • I’m pleased that the question is whether to renew the PARC tax for ten more years, not forever — so we voters can reevaluate in ten years. I wish we did that with more taxes.

All of this rests on my conviction that PARC programs are necessary features of a healthy community and appropriate uses of local tax funds. I’m quite comfortable with a local public role in these quality of life areas, assuming good management and reasonable transparency. If we’re going to have the programs and design them to be widely available, even to the economically disadvantaged, the PARC tax is the best way we’ve found to fund them.

Reasons I’ve Heard for Opposition (or Concern)

A Tax Is a Tax Is a Tax

Some folks can’t bring themselves to vote for any tax by any entity for any purpose. On an emotional level, I understand. In the aggregate, though mostly at the federal level, we are grievously overtaxed. The burden of taxes, fees, and hidden and indirect taxes on our larger economy is substantial. The individual and family burden can be miserable and outright unmanageable. The PARC tax is just about as harmless as a tax can get, and the burden is very small — but I can see voting against it, as the straw that breaks the voter’s back.

Some libertarians (and anarchists?) among us insist that all taxation is theft, or that all taxation is evil. I believe excessive taxation is evil, but limited taxation — to fund limited government — is necessary and proper. Unless I’m missing something, the ideologues must think either that all government is evil (I don’t), or that we could sufficiently fund a proper government by private contributions (I don’t). I’ve given up trying to persuade them.

Some conservatives have long considered the sales tax to be the most just tax. They’ve even advocated a national sales tax to replace the federal income tax. The fact that the PARC tax is a sales tax increment, plus the large nonresident contribution, may help to explain why our usual anti-tax voices are quieter, so far, in the present discussion.

Quality of Roads Before Quality of Life

Some argue that government has no business funding programs which are not necessary to sustain physiological life or defend basic rights. I say, to borrow a phrase, that man doth not live by bread, culinary water, and sewer service alone.

If they cite the United States Constitution but apply it to state and local governments, they’re wrong. True, the US Constitution doesn’t include PARC programs in the list of powers it allows the federal government. But the same Constitution, specifically the Tenth Amendment, reserves all other powers to the people and the states (and by implication, local governments).

Absent a constitutional argument against the PARC tax in American Fork, one could still make a philosophical argument. It’s not my philosophy, as I’ve said, but it’s not unworthy of a sensible mind to think that some or all of these programs should rely solely on private funds.

PARC - Harrington Center for the Arts
A new use for a historic downtown school.

One can also argue that we should direct no funds to quality of life programs until our roads are all in proper condition and our bonds — debts — are all paid off. I want to be snarky and say this is akin to residents insisting on paying off their home, car, and education loans before going out to JCW’s for the first time, but there are more substantive issues here.

First, state law doesn’t permit us to raise funds for roads with a 0.1% sales tax increment. It’s PARC or nothing.

Second, I’m not sure we have the technology to keep all our roads in good condition at the same time, affordably, in our climate. Even if we do, there’s another crucial consideration. The quality of life in a community — including PARC programs — directly affects the economic health of a community and therefore its tax base.

It’s not just that productive residents and families will leave for places with better PARC programs (not to mention better law and code enforcement), taking their taxes, talents, and stabilizing influence on neighborhoods and institutions with them. Since moving here in 1998, I’ve seen American Fork on the wrong side of that equation numerous times, though much less often lately.

It’s also that many employers make the local quality of life a major factor in deciding where to locate and grow their businesses. They need to attract employees, and they need prospective employees to be attracted to local communities. They also see quality of life programs — notably including arts programs — as a key indicator of the overall quality and health of local governments, on which businesses and their employees depend in many ways.

So, as usual, everything is connected. Eliminate or underfund PARC programs in your community, and you damage your existing economy and undermine future economic growth. This diminishes your ability to fund things like roads and public safety.

Third, in practice it’s often a false choice. I’ve observed that local governments who undervalue quality of life programs tend to underfund roads and public safety too.

We Need More Transparency

Some who openly oppose the PARC tax, and others who express concern but haven’t declared their vote, point to insufficient transparency in the use of PARC funds. They focus on grants to private organizations, which don’t have the same statutory requirements of transparency.

I have not observed these issues firsthand, but I’ve been hearing about them for a while. And I agree: we need more transparency. But I’m not willing to undo the PARC tax altogether because we don’t have enough transparency yet. Here’s why:

  • While I’d like to see the City require more transparency than it presently does, the overall situation appears to be improving.
  • It’s reasonable to expect us to need time — even years — to work out the kinks and figure out how best to administer the PARC program from top to bottom. The learning curve is institutional, not just personal, and the fact that most of the people involved are volunteers makes these things progress far more slowly than they might otherwise.
  • To a degree, we’re expecting artists and athletes to be good administrators; this may or may not be one of their gifts. Again, it’s going to take a while.

For me these are reasons to be patient, while continuing to insist on gradual improvement. They are not excuses for complacency or inattention. They are not sufficient cause for voting against renewing the PARC tax.

Art Dye Park Is Completed … and How Much for Restrooms?

One mayoral candidate, Tim Holley, has lately questioned the future need for all that PARC money. (At about 2:15 in the October 7 debate responses to the PARC question.) After all, Art Dye Park is completed, and that project has received a large percentage of the funds devoted to parks thus far.

Off the top of my head:

  • Art Dye Park is not finished. If nothing else, there’s a fair amount of parking lot yet to be paved, as of my latest visit, last week. [Later amendment: The planned improvements to the park may now be complete, as others have reported. But there’s a lot of unpaved parking, which I expect will eventually end up paved. Other improvements are certainly possible.]
  • Parks are not one-time expenses. We treated them that way years ago in American Fork, and they gradually became an embarrassment that was both expensive to endure and expensive to cure.
  • We’re about to build a much-needed park south of I-15. It will be nearly as large as Art Dye Park.
  • PARC is about a lot more than parks: arts (including music), recreation, culture. To use this park-based argument and ignore needs and potential in those areas is to take too narrow a view.
PARC - Art Dye Park
Art Dye Park

I’ve seen some (not a mayoral candidate) argue that we’re wasteful with our parks. This is another way of saying we don’t need the money. They sometimes note the cost of restroom facilities for a park, which is quite high, and declare it extravagant. This means they haven’t done their homework. If such facilities are not built essentially vandal-proof, they are quickly destroyed. So we pay to build them tough. Restrooms are one of the most valued amenities in our parks.

There are two ways to waste money on a park or other institution or program: give it more money than it needs to thrive, or starve it of funds. Why have a park (for example), if we won’t pay to have a good park? In that case, have we not in some measure wasted the funds we used to buy the land and (under)develop the park? In so many situations, the fiscally sound way to do a thing is to do it right, though it costs more than doing it halfway.

Bottom Line: Vote for PARC

As I said from the beginning, I’m firmly in favor of renewing the PARC tax. But there’s room for reasonable people to vote no. Some of the reasons for opposing it that I’ve mentioned here have more merit than others.

For more information about the PARC tax, see the PARC program’s website. For a more skeptical view than my own, see John Mulholland’s guest post here at AFelection.info.

And you may want to listen to what all the candidates said about the PARC tax. It’s easy to find here at AFelection.info.

What’s your view? How will you vote? Comments are welcome.

2 Replies to “On Renewing the PARC Tax”

  1. Thank you David for your research and thoughtful commentary. I also appreciate that you have given John Mulholland space to present his points and commentary. Like you, I long for better transparency for the grants and the entities which receive them, and I also think these are things which can be fixed by the PARC board, which I will make sure to share my opinions with in the future and hope others will do the same!

    1. Ted, thanks for reading and commenting! I share your confidence in the PARC board. I know most of them, either personally or by reputation, and it would be hard to find any better or more capable people in American Fork.

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