What’s wrong with this picture? Wall Street firms engage in high-risk investments, the bottom falls out of the market and investment banks and stock brokerage firms end up in Washington, D.C. seeking a check. Banks push subprime mortgages, consumers unknowingly gobble up the risky loans and find themselves facing balloon payments and staving off foreclosure; soon the banks are also looking to the feds for help. Automobile manufacturers, long teetering toward disaster, find their brands drowning in red ink and its executives converge on Capitol Hill seeking a bailout.
The bottom line is that in each instance the American taxpayer will ultimately foot the bill. And for some low-wage earners, it will be a disproportionate burden to bear. What is becoming evident is that the nation’s economic recovery will cost trillions, and it’s the taxpayer who will write the check; in nickels and dimes. While there is justification for the federal government to intervene and provide direct assistance to firms or whole industries that are critical to the nation’s economic stability, what makes the current trend alarming is that the average citizen will eventually pick up the tab as these costs are driven downward.
As the economic crisis raises pressure on states and localities facing growing deficits, governors and mayors are increasingly looking into the deepest crevices of the budget to find new and ingenious ways to eek out more revenue. At the same time these elected officials are boasting of holding the line on residential property or real estate taxes, an expense that in most states funds local school systems but is often the most onerous, they are taking a backdoor into the pockets of taxpayers by hitting residents up with new fees on a variety of quality of life measures.
In New York City the Parking Violations Bureau has ramped up and is aggressively ticketing motorists. They are being aided by the switch over to electronic meters that have shortened the duration of a parking cycle while increasing the hourly charge. At the same time the new meters have taken away the “benefit” motorists would receive with the manual meters by finding a parking space with time still registered on the meter. Also, the new system requires that a receipt is placed inside the windshield to confirm you have paid to park. In a city the size of New York, where it might take 10-15 minute to get to street level from the upper reaches of a skyscraper, the new system is ready made to increase the number of parking violations. The result is that there is a greater likelihood that a motorist will be caught off guard by the short time limit and end up finding a ticket on the windshield of their car. Likewise, the installation of cameras at traffic lights in some jurisdictions is catching residents off guard as tickets arrive in the mail, photo of the vehicle included, and carrying a hefty fee.
Parking is not the only way citizens will begin to foot the bill for the recovery. Some states have increased the tolls on state highways knowing that many motorists have no choice but to access the road to get to work or social activities. In addition to raising tolls, states are also beginning to significantly increase traffic tickets for moving violations. And in some states, like New Jersey, a hefty fee is attached if a motorist is stopped and does not physically possess a drivers’ license, insurance card and registration card. In New York City, despite several years of budget surpluses, the city transit system is seeking to raise subway fares; a move that has a direct impact on workers at the lower end of the wage scale.
Many of these measures are being presented under the guise of public safety, improved services or enhanced traffic enforcement, but in reality they are simply a way of shoring up sagging revenues. Since motorists and commuters are truly a captive audience they are also easy prey for states and cities looking for a quick infusion of cash. Even violations that were already on the books but rarely enforced have become another source of potential revenue.
While such fees seem insignificant, they can amount to hundreds of dollars that begin to impact one’s personal finances. For many poor and working class residents of communities, often Black, the monies to cover these additional expenses, on top of other household expenses, can begin to truly impact the quality of life or, worst case, force residents to relocate as the cost of living becomes too high too bear. Several hundred dollars in unexpected expenses can break a family that is already living on the edge. In many cities rents are creeping upward and utilities fees have also increased, while food prices have also rose. In recent weeks the one silver lining in the dark clouds of this recession has been that gas prices have come down considerably.
One of the reasons why residents are being pinched, with seemingly no recourse, is that these backdoor fees are often passed by boards or commissions that conduct their business in anonymity. Unlike a property tax increase that is often headline news in many cities and smaller communities, and always attract the wrath of politically savvy homeowners; these fees are often imposed with minimal media coverage and far less public debate. The reality hits the fan upon the first parking ticket, traffic stop or at the subway turnstile. By the time the public catches on, it’s too late.
The public, while paying attention to the bailout debate in Washington, D.C., needs to be in tune to what is occurring in their backyard. Chances are your local government is scouring the budget and seeking any way possible to impose new penalties to balance the books. The irony is that over time, during the course of a long recession, these fees are going to start working against some communities as people simply get fed up with deficit living and find another place to call home. In some instances people will choose the inconvenience of moving to farther distances, if work can be found nearby, than staying and attempting to eek out a meager existence under less than desirable financial conditions. It is a decision most people do not wish to make but one that more and more is becoming a consideration as costs increase.