The Disturbing Favoritism of Ocean Springs Government

pottedflowersImagine if your child came home from school one day and announced that she had received an “F” on her test because the teacher refused to answer her questions during a study session in class. You would certainly be puzzled as to why that was so. But then imagine how angry you would be if you learned that the teacher had randomly chosen a few students to assist, while ignoring the rest. Perhaps the teacher chose only the students he likes. Perhaps he chose them based upon where they sit in the classroom, or whether they smile often. It would not matter why the teacher made such an arbitrary choice … it would be wrong.

What if your elementary child’s principal decided that the school needed new equipment for the baseball team? There might be lots of positive ways to raise the funds for such a need, but let’s imagine that the principal in question makes a poor choice. Rather than arranging a fundraiser or seeking donations, let’s imagine that the principal goes through an alphabetical list of all students, choosing the name of every third student. To the parents of each of these students she then sends a bill for $100 while asking nothing of the rest. Would that be just?

We Americans normally recoil in shock when we encounter such examples of unfairness and immorality. For some reason, however, our moral outrage too often fades when it comes to government. As long as it’s being spent in a way that meets our approval we seem quietly unconcerned about the source for public funds. But let’s be honest. As Margaret Thatcher once said, “there is no such thing as public money, there is only taxpayers’ money.” 

The fictional examples I cite above are adequate metaphors for exactly what’s happening in the City of Ocean Springs in that award-winning area of downtown known as “Main Street.” To be sure, Ocean Springs has no street that I’m aware of with that name. “Main Street” is a special program that brings particular privileges to a tiny portion of the city. From what I’m able to determine from the perks provided under the program (some of which are shown here in photographs), it seems to include Washington Avenue from Highway 90 to Porter Street as well as Government Street between Washington and the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center.

benchOSIf you happen to own a business in this privileged area, you are fortunate indeed. The smile of city governance falls upon you with great regularity, as do the dollars of your fellow taxpayers. The Main Street Program is the result of a “strong partnership” between the city government and the Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce (or, as I prefer to call it, the Chamber For Some But Not For Others).

To grasp the full extent of the difference between “Main Street” and the other streets of the city, just wander a few dozen yards off the exalted path to view those businesses on side streets. You will notice that the sidewalks get less attention (if they exist at all) and there are usually no stylish street signs or lamp posts. Neither will you find the sturdy, extra-large benches or the metal garbage receptacles that line Washington and Government Streets. Most noticeable of all is the absence of lovely decorative flower pots and floral gardens tended by city employees. Outside the “Main Street” project, the beauty you encounter–and there is much beauty in Ocean Springs–is paid for by property owners themselves. They receive no support from city coffers, no appreciation from city leaders, and very little attention from those leaders (unless they happen to get behind in their taxes or forget to renew their business license).

In the interest of integrity I happily point out to you, dear reader, that my wife and I own a small business in downtown Ocean Springs known as Lagniappe Restaurant & Catering. We dropped our membership in the Chamber of Commerce when we realized the lack of equity in the way it showers attention on one part of town above all others.

Because we serve prepared food, our city leaders have seen to it that our customers pay 2% more in sales tax than other types of businesses in Ocean Springs. Nonetheless, because we are not on “Main Street,” we purchase and plant our own flowers. We pay someone from our own pockets to cut the grass. Any outdoor furniture or trash receptacles we have on our property are purchased and maintained at our own expense. We don’t expect our neighbors or fellow business owners to pay for the perks that make our location attractive.

Fortunately for the municipal budget, there is no sidewalk in front of our business. The city doesn’t have to find the money to keep it in good repair since it doesn’t exist. We get lots of foot traffic in our neighborhood but for some reason the city doesn’t think the pedestrians on our street deserve sidewalks. Sometimes we get elderly people walking past or driving their handicap scooters as they go between the Villa Maria Retirement Community and Hartz Fried Chicken. They do their best to stumble or scoot by, dodging traffic and the uneven edges of street pavement.

Sign.FlowersPerhaps at our business we should install a sign on the lawn that reads, “No Municipal Funds Used in the Upkeep of This Property.” To do so, I’m sure we’d have to apply and pay for a sign permit. But here’s the good news about that sign fee. I’m sure the City of Ocean Springs and the Chamber of Commerce would be delighted to have a few more dollars to spend on “Main Street.”

I realize taxes are a necessity for every community. But a sense of fairness would be appreciated if it showed itself among our city leaders. Taxing one particular type of business seems unfair when the revenue is going to benefits for everyone. On the other hand, taxing everyone in order to spend those tax dollars on a certain privileged part of town also seems unjust.

Of course, if you have a business on “Main Street,” you may just hope that the owners of the back-street businesses don’t wise up to what’s going on. And if you enjoy the flowers on “Main Street” you may not realize that we who own businesses on the back streets are helping to pay for that lovely vegetation and its upkeep. In either case, I hope you enjoy the beauty provided to you by my taxes. In the meantime I’ll keep trying to save enough to pay for the upkeep of my own business while the burden of taxes gets higher each year.

Every dollar taken from us for taxes is another dollar we can’t spend on improvements to our business. But it’s another dollar that the city can spend on someone else’s business.

I hold no grudges about the success of others. In fact, I celebrate and relish the success of any business owner–especially in the current economic environment. But no business owner or particular section of town should receive more attention from city government than any other.

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21 comments on “The Disturbing Favoritism of Ocean Springs Government

  1. justintheriot says:

    While this might sound like an act of revenge you should start cutting flowers from Main Street to use at your business. They are your flowers, well the taxpayers flowers, so you can start your own redistribution system of the flowers to the other streets. I am sure that will get Main Street and the government’s attention quite fast. Soon you will be able to sort out this unfair practice quite easily.

  2. Keith Wagner says:

    An excellent piece.

  3. chatty7533 says:

    Wonderful article…and about local issues. So needed for Mississippi! Thank you!

  4. Wow John, you hit the nail right on the head! You’re not alone in your thinking, I talk with “non-Main Street” business owners on a regular basis and invariably this exact topic comes up – complaining how they are grossly undeserved by the city and the chamber. Do you have any proposed solutions?

    • John Switzer says:

      Perhaps it’s time for a second organization! Should we call it the Ocean Springs Offstreet Chamber of Commerce? Better yet, how about the Ocean Springs Better Chamber of Commerce. With that name we’d appear first in the phone book!

  5. Penelope says:

    John, a looong time ago you and Patsy hosted a wedding for my brother at your restaurant. It was an absolutely beautiful setting and the food was to die for. They were on a limited budget and you two made it so very special, I’ll never forget the kindness you expressed from your hearts, by helping to make their special day even more so. You have done such a wonderful job all of these years.

    In response to the favoritism shown to “Mn St”, I believe it may be more nepotism considering the Moran family own most of the buildings, both old and new construction. Or would that be more like “conflict of interest”?

    • John Switzer says:

      Penelope, thanks for your very kind comments. I’ll see that Patsy reads them. The catering and restaurant business is mostly her doing. She is happy making folks feel welcome. She really adores the business, as your comments demonstrate.

      Regarding your other comment about the city leadership, I can’t speak to that issue because I’ve not looked into it. Surely it is something that perhaps should be explicitly addressed by the mayor–for the sake of clarifying any questions that voters may have about the subject. She gets plenty of press, so I’m sure she can easily do so if she believes it to be in her best interest.

  6. Beth Riley says:

    John, I understand your dilemma of being off the “Main Steet” area but I want to inform you on one aspect of the flower distribution. As you know, we are located on Government St. near Washington Ave. Yet, we have never benefited from any seating, flower pots or flowers. We provide all of our upkeep and beautifiation, which makes me all the more angry when they are stolen, vandalized or used as empy beer bottle recepticles. Being on “Main St.” does have its downside. The city did install the “bump outs” and planted sago palms and other plants which quickly grew to the point of obstructing the view of our businesses.

    And honestly, I think part of the “two main streets” mentality is just geography and a little laziness. For example, there is actually plenty of parking downtown when you consider all of the small parking lots available right off Government Stand Washington Ave.. Yet, tourists and even some shop owners ignore them to park on the street. I know of some shop owners and employees who even park in front their own businesses while their customers search for parking! Duh!

    I’ve know several business that have failed because they were one street off Washington or Government. They tried all kind of signs, but they just never worked. How can we say its anyone’s fault?

    The Chamber really does works hard for all businesses but I guess there will always limitations of time and money. Myself, I am impressed with their energy and hard work.

  7. John Switzer says:

    Thanks, Beth. I’m so glad you spoke up and offered some important clarifications. Not every potted plant or flower garden on “Main Street” is installed or tended by city government. In my humble opinion, private efforts by business and property owners are the only fair way to beautify downtown.

    There are lots of business people in the “Main Street” area who care for their own property. My criticism, however, is aimed at the question of how much city and chamber officials dote over the downtown area. You are correct: “there will always be limitations of time and money.” For that reason, such time and money should be invested not only wisely, but fairly.

    Please note that nowhere in my blog post did I say or even suggest that the city or the chamber do no good. Our business occasionally donates to events hosted by both. We assuredly would not do so if we believed that no good at all came from either entity. Still, I believe my post raises valid questions about equity and fairness. If I were a leader in either organization, I would be eager to address these issues in a very public way.

    Regarding the “bumps” you speak of–they were a ridiculous idea inspired by a desire to make the city prettier. But they are a hazard and have detracted from parking space. As for the “downside” of “Main Street,” I recognize that as well. I am often told by long-time citizens of Ocean Springs that it looks, feels, and sounds way too much like Bourbon Street these days. With that reality comes a great deal of “downside,” I’m sure.

    Your comments are always welcome here–as are those of everyone else, whether you agree or not. Thanks for being part of the conversation!

  8. Jennifer McKinzie says:

    Wow. This sounds so naive. This type of thinking (that is, the author’s) might explain why so many small towns remain backward. Fortunately, there has been much more vision in Ocean Springs!

    No, I am not from OS (or the South), but I have visited many, many times over the last 25-30 years. The change is remarkable! Do you think this change has had no effect outside of “main street”? Do you realize that the Main Street idea has been utilized in communities throughout the nation? Even big cities like mine place special emphasis on portions of our downtown to draw people to the area. Dollars (much of which are NOT tax dollars) are limited and equally spreading them around is not the best approach.

    Just my two cents from several hundred miles away. I look forward to my next trip to OS!

    • John Switzer says:

      Jennifer, thanks for your comment. Ocean Springs is always eager to welcome visitors. We look forward to having you with us. I’m sorry, however, that you think my comments are naive.

      Undoubtedly, my business has had some benefit from the way downtown is kept–and yes, downtown looks pretty. But that wasn’t my point.

      My point was this: government taxation and spending comes at a price. It’s an economic price. Because you think downtown is prettier now, you are essentially making the same error as those who embrace the Broken-Window Fallacy described by the Austrian School economists and F. A. Hayek. You seem to think that since my business got some meager benefit from government spending and because downtown is prettier, the taxation behind that spending is justifiable. Not so. The cost is higher than you realize.

      In addition, in a nation genuinely interested in liberty and free markets, I should be able to choose how my money is spent. Dear leaders of Ocean Springs, please let me keep more of my money. Then, as a free agent for my own advancement and good, I’ll spend it to improve my business and be responsible for it. I know better what my business needs than elected politicians.

      Jennifer, one point in your post is verifiably wrong. You state that government spends funds “which are NOT tax dollars” (your emphasis). Every single dollar spent by any government entity is a dollar collected through taxation or government fees (fees being one more form of taxation). The only exception is money donated from a private entity that has no taxation power (such money coming to government is so minuscule as to be unimportant for our conversation). The City of Ocean Springs may get money from other government entities through grants, but that money is still a result of taxation–taking money from people by force. If you think it otherwise, stop paying your taxes a while and see who comes to your door with a sidearm on his holster.

      Finally, perhaps the most disturbing part of your post is your comment that spending tax dollars equally “is not the best approach.” Goodness, that just smacks of tyranny. But you seem comfortable with that, so it can stand on its own measure.

      Maybe one day you’ll come to see my business, Jennifer. Whatever flowers and improvements you see there will not be paid for by the other business owners of the city but by my wife and me.

      Back in the 19th century, the Frenchman Frederic Bastiat wrote something about the attitude you demonstrate in your comment. I hope you won’t mind if I share it with you. It comes from his treatise entitled, in English, The Law. “See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.” What he was describing, Jennifer, and what you describe, might best be understood as legalized theft. It is justified by nothing more than the fact that someone in authority believes it to be in everyone’s best interest.

  9. Ken Wilson says:

    Hey John this is not a Main Street issue but I sure understand how you feel. I have lived in the city for 37 years and have tried to get drainage on my street from the day I moved into my home. I retired form the city after working over twenty years and am treated like crap the only help I got was from an aldermen at large Mr Jalanivich our public works official had an under sized pipe installed, had all kinds of drainage projects go on. Watch as a drain was placed on a street south of me and a drain also placed in a persons yard. This wards alderman could care less. I will have to give credit to Mayor Moran she has gotten Mr in charge of public works off his butt a couple of time although he claims this street has no drainage. Any way I don’t keep tract of the aldermen anymore but I blame them for what is going on in O.S. Stay safe tell your dad Ken said hi.

  10. Anne Cavanaught Burke says:

    John, your view of O.S. has always been fair and on point.

    For years I tried to get someone to tell me what is being done with the Hundres of Thousands of dollars collected over the years at the Peter Anderson Festival – you know the two bucks (maybe more now) they take from festival goers to walk down public streets?

    I’ve seen “guestimates” as high as 200,000 attending the festival per year – that’s an awful lot of money.

    BTW, I never did get an anwer.

  11. Nick Carzoli says:

    Stop making sense, John.

    You should live in East Ocean Springs. We feel honored to have garbage pickup and mail delivery. I’m thinking of running for office for ward 6. Evidently it’s an easy paycheck as you only have to work to get elected.

  12. Tom Roth says:

    In my opinion those planters jutting out into Government Street were a total waste of money and are a genuine hazard to drivers in dark or adverse weather conditions. This is clearly evidenced by the black tire marks all over them which by the way make them look awful..

  13. Tom brokl says:

    From those who have to those who want. A PROGRESSIVE attitude.

  14. OS veteran says:

    This article helps to clear up any type of confusion I hear from the rants of both sides. As someone currently living outside city limits, I am compelled to comment simply based on the fact that I lived in the city for half of my life. The house I lived in, still owned by family exits closer to pecan park and as I drive by, I see exactly what you are saying. Where are the improvements? Where are the sidewalks? The improvement most noticeable on this side of town is the intersection by the hospital which used to be very dangerous but fixed by McKay. He also repaired/improved the halstead tennis courts. As I am impressed with the improvements initiated by Connie, primarily front beach and the sidewalks downtown, I have to agree with Penelope regarding “conflict of interest”. It would be interesting to pull the public records to see just how many businesses are owned by the Moran family. How many of their businesses were bought from tax defaults for pennies etc, etc…the list could go on and on regarding corruption. Where is the accounting? Who is holding the city up to integrity? There are definitely supporteted by those with a clouded vision and a inability to see both sides of the fence. And as for those planters….terrible waste. Especially the one in front of the Mary C on a dark night if you’re from out of town”. How about a bill to the city to repay for the front end damage for running into it?

    The Moran family owns the city and the several folks who pay them homage. Good luck Mr. McKay, at least we know you’re honest. I mean really, who would have known not to go with the Walker clan if you were invited? Isn’t that what politicians do? Network?

    It’s all tit for tat.

    This election should be about who is best for the city and my vote is for the one who is honest and cares and about equality for all.

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