Predator-Prey Models, Not Just for Ecology

By Leslee Kulba- An oversimplification would illustrate government in two polarities: Democrats who see only the demand side and Republicans who see only the supply side, and never the twain shall meet.

The demand side wins when a majority on a board is Democrat; the supply side, Republican. But then there are those things that one must be in government not to understand.

Consider stormwater.
Over a decade ago, when the rain tax was rebranded as investing in best management practices for stormwater runoff, the City of Asheville purchased a molded plastic model, about 2’x2’, of a landscape. For education and outreach, a city employee would sprinkle dirt on top of the mold, then sprinkle water and show how mud formed and actually started running downhill.

The demonstration was very thought-provoking, as anybody who saw it would spend the next few months agonizing over exactly who was supposed to learn anything from it.

Eventually, the no-doubt overpriced plastic model will get old, and the city will have to decide if it wants to invest in another one. If city council wants to be the steward of taxpayer dollars, which it doesn’t, it could pocket the change and refer people in need of education and outreach to the model in which Buncombe County taxpayers have begun investing.

Consider each taxpayer as a speck of dirt. The specks of dirt hang out with each other, perching here and there. Some dwell on rocks and concrete; others, who are better off, live under the fields and forests, making root systems their homes. When it rains – that will represent taxation. A light rain makes the world fresh and green and shiny when the sun comes back out.

But a heavy rain sends the loose dirt specks into the stream, which will illustrate them becoming a lost cause. Perhaps it means they move out of the county or get caught up in the system. The ones in the roots do well, but if it keeps on raining, some of them will break loose and spill into the river. With more and more rain, sinkholes can develop.

Over at the river, the dirt specks, now mud, wash over the bank. More rain pushes more specks, who exert forces on the specks in front of them. The rain breaks up the soil, its weight exerting downward pressure that shears off slabs and exposes formerly safe dirt to the next round of shearing.

The mechanism of erosion under water loads mirrors the effects of raising taxes, each increase marginalizing a new income tier. As people on fixed incomes must decide if they want to buy food, medicine, or stay in their home; little specks of dirt once secure in the roots, under enough water, will rush headlong into the stream.

And so, Buncombe County, living up to all adages about government claiming to cure problems with more of what created them, decided to allocate $3,812,000 to affordable housing projects in its FY2019-2020 budget. Commissioner Mike Fryar cast the lone opposing vote. He observed the county agreed to give Mountain Housing Opportunities a $2,200,000 debt-free loan for 20 years to create affordable housing while projecting, for example, $1,000,000 in new debt for a “multimodal design element” for I-26.

The numbers aren’t in yet for FY18-19, but the actual FY17-18 budget totaled $399,663,992. The proposed budget for FY19-20 is $453,430,943 and includes $12,980,963 drawn off the fund balance, leaving it just above the county’s self-imposed 15%-of-general-fund minimum.

Fryar, like many, believed the only way the county would get around increasing the tax rate next year would be if housing revaluations come in higher; either way, the people will be paying more. Fryar repeated a conversation the county’s tax collector had had with a retiree on a fixed income, who had made arrangements to pay his taxes on a monthly plan.

Fearing a tax increase, the retiree explained he was surviving on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches now and wondering when he’ll have to give up the jelly. The county, Fryar said, was robbing Peter to pay Paul, but Peter was running out of money. Peter was washing into the river.

Many things make more sense than raising the price of housing to subsidize lower-priced housing. Using taxing powers to redistribute wealth, government spares one voting bloc by hosing another. Fryar said the commissioners should stop granting every request that comes before them as if the power to tax were infinite.

Oft-cited causes of rising housing costs are more attributable to municipal government and include zoning, which limits where what kinds of housing can go; building codes that impose of costs of compliance without improvements to health and safety; protracted and/or inconsistent design review processes that discourage developers; and yes, affordable housing programs increasingly eroding the percentage of citizens able to pay
market rate.

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