April 2009 Editorial Winner

Give It Up
Wayne Trotter, The Countywide & Sun

Shawnee is lucky to have Russell Frantz as police chief. He’s a bright young face in city government and he obviously knows his stuff when it comes to fighting crime. It should be no surprise that he’d like to stretch his department’s income a little by tapping into what looks like almost free money from the insurance companies. They’re all filthy rich anyway, aren’t they?

With all due respect, Chief Frantz is back on the beat again when it comes to tax policy. What may look like a slam dunk to him actually hides serious questions of fairness and cooperation that go way beyond a few thousand extra dollars for the Police Department. Vice Mayor Pam Stephens pointedly raised several of those in a brief question-and-answer session and the responses she elicited just weren’t satisfactory. Too bad.

One of the possible unanticipated consequences of enacting this new service fee has to do with who would be affected. When Chief Frantz and a for-profit Ohio company first brought this to the commission in February, there was no doubt that the idea was to stick the cost of responding to civil-type accidents on out-of-towners while letting good ol’ Shawnee people off the hook. Fairness, anyone?

This notion was based on the theory that Shawnee citizens already cough up enough in the form of property taxes. That might be true up and down the East Coast, but it’s dead wrong in Oklahoma. Cities live off sales taxes here and for the most part, don’t get property taxes at all. By adopting this, Shawnee would court the image of luring people to shop and fleecing them if they happen to have an accident in town. What would the Chamber of Commerce think about that? What should the City Commission think?

Vice Mayor Stephens’ astute questioning opened the old puzzle of who watches the watchmen. She noted that everyone has seen too many emergency vehicles at minor fender benders and asked how the bills would be figured when that happens. In effect, the chief said, his department would be on the honor system. Uh-huh. Bureaucracies love to work revenue enhancers. You can count on that.

You can also count on this: If Shawnee passes a law that penalizes out-of-towners, other communities are going to follow suit. You can expect similar ordinances in Tecumseh, Meeker, McLoud, Earlsboro, Bethel Acres, Chandler and elsewhere. Why not? Shawnee people drive on their streets too. It’s free revenue, isn’t it?

Well, maybe. Chief Frantz says rates haven’t gone up anywhere because of this but that’s a generalization. If this is any element in insurance costs, it’s at least a minor factor before regulatory bodies and who has the experts to trace those figures? You got it. The insurance companies. Just because it hasn’t been cited as the determinant villain doesn’t mean these costs haven’t helped push rates higher.

There’s a reason nobody else in Oklahoma has done this. This is just a bad, bad, bad, bad idea and the City Commission has already spent far too much time haggling over it. After years of largely futile pursuit of area cooperation, progress is finally being made on a range of important topics. The losses that could result from torpedoing those efforts far exceed the pocket change Shawnee might take in by enacting an inherently unfair policy.

Cool it, commissioners. Cool it, chief. Let this one slide. It doesn’t come close to being worth the trouble.