by Jim Ley
In 1994 I gave a speech to a large gathering at the National Association of Counties asking the question “Will You be Roadkill on the Information Superhighway?” The Internet as an everyday thing was new and just beginning to gain some relevance. But those of us who liked to look to the future saw a lot that was going to impact public policy.
On that day I asked them the simple question — how will you tax a box the size of your kitchen table (OK, be fair, file servers were a lot larger then, but I was looking to the future) that produces all of the sales transactions that used to be produced by your local mall — at the time the arguably largest single property tax generator in most urban counties?
I look back on that presentation and realize that as close as I was to defining a set of specific challenges that might take place, I wasn’t even in the ballpark of being able to see the systematic influence that technology would drive across the board.
I find it interesting that much of the policy discussion today regarding technology is centered on the theme of “coping with disruptive technology trends.” Just the use of the word “disruptive” to describe the challenge shows how difficult it is for government and society to identify and adapt to changes in the status quo. How tied to the status quo we can become!
The way of systemic adaptation
Amazon is now the large retailer in the world.
The online shopping experience, having started in 1995, has hit its stride and has become more a part of our everyday consuming life than we could ever have suspected. Online fulfillment companies like Amazon have evolved through multiple phases of connection with their customers and have now begun to address the subliminal emotional aspects of the shopping experience.
Within 10 years even more will change as regards the online shopping experience. You won’t have to shop, as in searching and then browsing through endless pages looking for what you want. Your desires will be presented to you directly, just like you have your own digital personal shopper. Your shopping experience will become the guide to anticipating your purchasing needs.
Your closet, pantry and refrigerator will tell your computer, and that of your online retailer, how old your clothes are, when you wore an item last, and what food staples you are in need of. Your purchasing habits, social media and on line habits will be mined to produce a customized shopping experience geared just to you. The local retail store will increasingly become a thing of the past, replaced by an outlet where you may be able to try out virtual goods or where you can have them delivered in the form of 3D printed consumables. With a personal shopping list having been organized for you without much thought on your part, the push of a button will bring your groceries and supplies to your door.
Other things will change as a result.
The commercial real estate market will begin to shrink, maybe even dramatically. The need for large and small strip malls will be greatly diminished, limited in some respects to places that house grocery stores — to the degree they will be needed as grocery needs can also be algorithmically anticipated — and small offices and boutique local retail.
Personal shopping automobile trips will, over time, be reduced dramatically, and more and more people will begin to abandon personal automobile ownership in favor of car sharing services that will evolve from the current Uber model to the point where you can simply call for a self-driving vehicle on your smartphone or similar device.
Automobile sales as the significant source of state and local sales tax revenue they now are will begin to decline under this scenario. Bulk delivery services like FedEx and UPS will be replaced with drones and Uber like personalized delivery. The Amazon-type fulfillment center will become the largest building in a region — until it too is made obsolete.
A radical impact on funding governments
All of this will radically transform the property tax base, with commercial space being devalued sharply. It is this commercial and office space in the shape of downtowns and dense (not suburban) clusters that, until now, has produced the large tax premium — defined as producing taxes over and above the average per acre — that the rest of the community uses as a dividend to keep its public services funded at a sustainable level.
Maintaining a sustainable property tax base will become a topic at every City Council and County Commission meeting as the commercial tax base absorbs this “disruptive” result. The shape of communities will change, creating large opportunities for redevelopment, always with an emphasis on propping up the property tax base. A strategy of density oriented tax farming will become more obvious as a means of maintaining the flow of public revenue while limiting costs required to provide for the basics of public service. It will no longer be a question of what is the most valuable parcel in a county or city tax base (like “the mall”) but instead it will be all about the taxes generated per acre of development. Density, a dirty word used in land-use hearings today, will be the byword for financial survival.
Collectively these trends should work to influence land-use policy now and lead to a redefinition of urban space, their collective interaction producing the catalyst that moves the market back to a more walkable and intimate urban and suburban form in our activity centers.
The question is: Are the statehouses and local council chambers that set the policies that manage our communities capable of identifying these trends and managing the political discussions and decisions required to adapt? What principle will be applied in attempts to cope? Will it be a principle of regulate-and-control that protects the status quo, or a principle of identify-and-adapt, seeking to engage and inform investment and real estate interests who themselves will have to adapt or perish?
The states and cities that can think forward like the Amazons and Apples of the private sector, will be in position to thrive in the new economy. The rest…
Jim Ley has more than 35 years in public service, the last 25 of which were in top level administrative positions in two of the more dynamic counties in the U.S. Jim served two terms as President of the National Association of County administrators and was a leading “small government” voice in the profession. His administrative focus has been on financial sustainability and accountability to the taxpayer.
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