The Other Columbus: When your city gaslights you

Scott Woods
The former Columbus Trolley Barn on East Oak Street in Olde Towne East.

The idea that politicians are dumb is itself a dumb idea.

Politicians generally know what they’re doing, but more, they’re fairly versed in the counterarguments against the things they do. These are not unintelligent people. The question is whether what they’ve done is happening out of ignorance, malice or fidelity to a party or value.

Any criticism I lob against something the city has decided to do is not only researched and vetted, but also informed by work the city has done. As evidence, I present a recent panel discussion I was invited to sit on regarding gentrification. Prior to the dialogue, a City Council member, Shayla Favor, had been invited (unbeknownst to me) to give opening remarks. She read a statement about gentrification, even using the word twice, which I admit was a shock. City Council members try to never use the word, so I was taken aback by not only her convenient vocabulary, but the host of legitimate factors and issues related to gentrification that she was clearly aware of.

Of course, Favor was speaking to a predominantly black audience traditionally targeted by the development efforts of her peers, so the notion that she might offer a surely coincidentally timed election-aimed olive branch of insight on the issue shouldn’t have come as a total surprise.

It’s never that they don’t know. It’s that they don’t care.

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Take schools. The forthcoming Trolley Barn rehab in Olde Towne East (which, for the purposes of development, is apparently now Downtown Columbus) wouldn’t seem to be about schools at all. It’s going to be a lovely suburban-facing marketplace in the spirit of the North Market, with food service and shopping and no shortage of repurposed decorative wood, I am sure. The kind of thing the city can toss up in a year and a half these days and start pumping millions of dollars and photo ops through.

The thing is, the city is under renewed public scrutiny for its weaponized use of tax abatements (which isn’t remotely a new practice; it’s just that more people know what a tax abatement is now) and with schools falling apart, you can’t exactly sell education as a priority in a “Move To Columbus” campaign. It’s not a good look all around. So they’ve come up with DRDs.

A DRD is a “downtown redevelopment district.” Former Mayor Michael Coleman is the de facto face of DRDs because he’s the mayor people actually liked, despite being the mayor who laid the groundwork for all of the stuff we’re complaining about now. Much of what we blame Mayor Ginther for is just him pulling the trigger on things that Coleman set up. Ginther is essentially the city’s clean-up batter.

Anyway, DRDs are a slick way for city officials to pretend like the city is standing up against tax abatement policies they themselves installed. In the case of the Trolley Barn, the city is taxing the development $80,000 a year toward schools for the first 15 years, but taking 70 percent of that money and funneling it back through a committee that gets to decide how to reinvest the $56,000 they just snatched. So schools end up with $24,000 per year from a development that, again, will generate millions of dollars. You can’t hire a first-year teacher with that kind of money.

So basically DRDs are a political move — a way for the city to save face on abatements by taking the least amount of money from a developer so they can say they aren’t using an abatement. You would have to be grossly obtuse to believe that it serves any other purpose.

Consider the gall it takes to look at our school system — failing, crumbling, roasting students and staff in spring, freezing them in winter — and thump your chest over delivering a plan that collects $24,000 per year toward schools off of a property that will funnel millions of dollars per year when it’s done.

Again, it’s not that they can’t do the math. It’s that they don’t care.

A popular debate about cities is that the people who run them — in our case, the mayor, City Council, the school board, various organizations and developers — think its residents are either stupid or don’t care. I may not be the smartest person in any given room, but I know that what happens in Columbus at the civic level isn’t because civic players think citizens are unintelligent. But it also isn’t as simple as everyone living here not caring. There is more nuance to why things work the way they do here, and it largely happens for two reasons: a) They know that not enough citizens are aware of the problems and machinations of their leaders (a race against ignorance), and b) Not enough of the right citizens care enough to do anything about it (a race against math).

It is the rare citizen who gets riled up beyond a conversation. And if you’re counting the way you vote as the sum total of your contribution to doing the right thing, I need you to recognize that you do that once every other year, and most of us don’t bother to do even that. So voting isn’t the (only) answer.

The answer begins with acknowledging the we’re not dealing with a city that doesn’t know what your problems are. They know your problems better than you do. We are dealing with a city that doesn’t care about your problems as you experience them. It is a city that frequently expends part-time efforts so that it can pay full-time lip service when you raise concerns. Your city isn’t dumb. Your city is simply too powerful to care.