Officials from Aurora, Colorado are in a tizzy because someone conducted some focus groups to see what taxpayers thought of a $300 million subsidy to a proposed hotel. Such focus groups “violate the ethics code for economic development organizations in the region,” said Tom Clark, the executive vice-president of Denver’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC).
Apparently, it is perfectly ethical to steal money that taxpayers had allocated to schools, fire, and police and give it to a private developer, but it is unethical to ask those taxpayers how they fell about such theft. Colorado’s “taxpayer bill of rights” prevents governments from raising taxes by more than a certain percentage each year–but tax-increment financing, the main source of subsidies for the proposed hotel, is exempt from this law.
“You can’t work against your neighbor, and you can’t run around them,” Clark said. “If you do, you’re subject to permanent expulsion from the Metro Denver EDC.” Of course, it is always possible that some people don’t want to be a part of Clark’s cozy little club of thieves.
The Denver Post suggests that the focus groups were paid for by Walter Isenberg, the CEO of Sage Hospitality, a hotel service company. Aurora’s mayor Ed Tauer suspects there is “a monetary interest at stake.” Of course there is, considering the city is subsidizing a competitor to the region’s major hotels. But it is possible that Sage Hospitality could have gotten the contract to serve the proposed hotel, which would mean that Isenberg was motivated more by a sense of fairness than by monetary interests.
Tauer and others fear that those who funded the focus group plan to circulate an initiative petition to overturn the subsidies. Such a petition, says Tauer, would be “a slap in the face to the thousands of Aurorans who support this project.” Because the thousands who oppose it should not be allowed to have a say in how their city operates.
The real irony is not that government agencies that run focus groups all the time are accusing others of being unethical for running a focus group. Instead, it is the curious notion that leaders of tax-increment finance agencies think they have any ethics at all.