The sales tax increase for Columbia’s Downtown Community Improvement District (CID) that was approved by a “vote” last November has been problematic from the start. Proponents of the tax mounted an impressive public relations campaign, promising all sorts of wonderful improvements to come if only the Downtown voters would allow for a higher sales tax in “The District.” Chief among these pie-in-the-sky improvements (at least in the mind of the voter) was the proposed installation of “District-wide free WiFI” internet service.
Despite well-reasoned opposition mounted by Keep Columbia Free and our friends, we were outspent and the tax increase passed by a “wide margin.” Well, at least that’s what the winners said. Tweets and Facebook posts from CID leadership and friends touted a 63% to 37% victory for the tax plan. As I write, the CID website still has this statistic displayed.
What the 63% statistic fails to communicate is that only 40 people voted. The measure passed 25 to 15. It would have taken only 6 votes to swing the outcome the other direction. While these numbers might seem normal in a small rural community, in Columbia, a small city with a population well over 100,000, these numbers are laughable.
25 people voted to raise the taxes of every other citizen who spends money in our city center, the home of most of Columbia’s restaurants, nightclubs, and unique retail shops. 25 people made a very rational decision to save themselves a sizable chunk of money that would normally be paid to an internet provider each month and let the taxpayers of Columbia provide free WiFi in the CID. After all, the plan for free WiFi was marketed to these voters via direct mail and in the press. “Taxation without representations be damned! We want free WiFi!”
Well… not so fast…
“There is still a concern among some members of the committee whether or not wireless is something that is needed,” CID Executive Director Carrie Gartner said.
Wow! It looks like another example of the classic political bait and switch — say anything to get the votes you need and then immediately renege.
To be clear, Keep Columbia Free thinks that taxpayer-funded “free” WiFi is a bad idea. It removes the competitive advantage for businesses that offer WiFi and, really, the government has no business providing WiFi in the first place. Not only is government WiFi a bad idea, the CID tax was a bad idea, lying to voters was a bad idea, and the CID itself is a bad idea.