My childhood friend, Sam, recently posted a blog entry that filled me with nostalgia. In our hometown of Chicago Ridge, Santa Claus came by every year on a firetruck. He'd honk the impossibly loud firetruck horn and go up and down the streets throughout our town of about 10,000 and hand all of us kids paper bags filled with treats like ice cream candy.
Our town actually did a lot of wonderful things not unlike "Firetruck Santa." Over the Fourth of July every year, they held "Ridge Kid's Day" at the park across the street from my house. It was completely free, and kids got to get their faces painted, sing karaoke, play games for prizes, go to a petting zoo, and even ride animals like horses, llamas, and elephants. As I wrote that, I realized that I actually have a photo of the event saved onto my computer. Here is a photo of my sister and me in the summer of 1992:
At that same park, the annual "Ridge Fest" takes place. It is a traveling carnival that has all sorts of rides (like Tilt-a-Whirl!), carnival food, and carnival games. The whole town gets excited for the event, and it brings in people from all around the Southside. In the summer, the city also blocks off streets for annual summer block parties. Firefighters will even go to people's block parties and open the fire hydrants for kids to play in. Every winter, the park district held an annual "Daddy-Daughter Date Night." My sister and I loved getting dressed up every year to go out for a special night of dinner and dancing. All our school friends would be there with their dads, too.
Anyway, it got me thinking how sad it is that we don't have a lot of that here in the Denver Metro area. I blame a lot of politics. Most communities around here don't want to pay taxes, and with low tax rates come few social benefits. For example, in my parents' neighborhood, they don't even plow. Same with my in-law's neighborhood. I just drove down my parents' street yesterday. It's a giant sheet of ice, and it hasn't snowed since last Thursday.
I remember one time, one of my mom's neighbors wanted to get everyone in the community to contribute to a fund to hire a plow. My mom told me about it, and I responded with, "You mean, like taxes?" But you can't say the T word around here. It just won't fly.
In our state, there's no tax on food at the grocery store. None. Not even on pop or potato chips. Our state sales tax is 2.9%. Every city has its own tax, and they vary immensely. In my mom's city, where they don't plow (read: can't afford to plow), the city tax rate is 2.5%. One kid slipped on the sidewalks to school (the public sidewalks aren't shoveled) and broke his arm two winters ago. In my in-law's city, they don't even charge a sales tax, and they live in a fairly wealthy town! Compare that to where I lived in Chicago which has a sales tax rate of 9.25%. At least they could afford plows!
Our cities and state can't really afford much of anything. Our state colleges and universities are charging outrageous tuition fees (CU-Boulder, a public university, charges up to $14,000 a year for an undergraduate degree for in-state residents, and, no, that does not include the $11,000 room and board students are required to pay for two years). We have state parks and penitentiaries closing. Libraries are closing for one or more days a week, and some are closing their doors permanently. Cities that can afford a budget for plowing only plow major streets, and, even then, they frequently run out of money before the winter is over and have to stop plowing or ask for emergency funds from the federal government.
So, why don't our state representatives and senators do something? They can't. You see, our state has a law in place called TABOR. According to this law, there can be no tax increases unless there is a ballot measure on it and gets approval by voters. So, the people we elect to represent us and do what is best for our cities are unable to.
Our K-12 schools had to take huge cuts this year (hundreds of millions of dollars), and someone proposed a temporary tax increase of 0.1% to help put money into our schools. For those of you who hate math, 0.1% tax rate is the equivalent of one cent on a $10 purchase. One, single penny. It failed miserably.
I think of the little niceties I got to enjoy as a child in the Chicago area (Firetruck Santa!), and I'm sad we don't get anything like that here because people are afraid of the word tax. We can't fund our schools or our libraries or our parks, but at least we don't have to pay an extra few pennies on our cases of soda pop.