Community relations and the 800-lb. gorilla

A town-gown dilemma offers lessons about self interest versus community interest in Smalltown, USA

I woke up yesterday wondering how to create an engaging lesson on gorilla.jpgco-orientation theory. That’s right — co-orientation theory. In case you’re wondering, the textbook defines it as “the belief that people act not only on the basis of their own perceptions, but also on what they believe are the perceptions of others.”

squirrel.jpgCo-orientation is a central theme in almost every community relations case study, since community relations tends to involve the conflicting needs and concerns of our many stakeholders. Co-orientation is way more interesting than it appears, but that’s true of most things academic once you put them into a real-world context.

As I anguished over how to bring this theory to life, along came Ed Bargerstock, councilman from Ward 5 right here in Kent, Ohio. Ed’s big idea to solve the city’s emerging budget crisis was the lead story in yesterday’s paper. And not surprisingly, his plan includes Kent State University — the 800-lb. gorilla in this story.

If KSU goes along with Ed’s plan, the folks who live and work in our little town will be spared a major tax increase and a major political battle. But don’t hold your breath.

Class discussion began by outlining the situation analysis. In a nutshell:

Revenues from both property and city income taxes in Kent have been stagnant in recent years while costs of running the city continue to rise. To close the budget gap, the city has two choices: raise income taxes on those who work here or raise property taxes on those who live here. Neither is popular among those affected.

Since property taxes are paid by those who live and vote here, forget that option. It’ll never fly. Raising the city income tax might get voter approval, since many who work in Kent don’t live OR vote here. But a higher income tax will almost certainly make Kent less attractive to business, and we need business to create jobs and economic growth.

This is where I remind the student that the taxes-are-bad mindset is a national problem at all levels of government. We want great services, but we don’t want to pay for them.

So Councilman Ed tosses out his big idea: Let’s levy an “admissions” tax Kent State students. It won’t be much — between $20 – $40 per semester. And it’s not unfair, since students DO benefit from the many services the city provides, right?

Unfortunately, Ed went public with the idea before any community conversation could take place. This appears to be part of Ed’s confrontational style, or so local poltical watchers tell me.

As a result, those who may have embraced the concept of a user fee paid by students may never get the chance to discuss it. Ed gets his headline, but his idea gets shot down before it gets a hearing at the grassroots.

Too bad, because it’s a concept we should at least talk about. The “tax” Ed proposes would cost students little, and would shift a bit of the burden for city services to those who use them. Only seems fair.

Legal experts quoted in the story say Ed’s idea is flat-out illegal, since it calls for a “tax” on a tax-exempt entity. But what if the “tax” became a “fee” levied by the university to be voluntarily shared with the city for services rendered? A move like that could build a lot of goodwill in the town-gown relationship while also helping our poor neighbor with a big, big problem.

As we kicked around the options in class, students quickly realized that community relations is no day at the beach. It requires the skills of a diplomat, but also a deep understanding of municipal government, tax laws, and politics. Add to this the need to understand the concerns of all key players in the issue. It requires that we listen.

We analyzed the problem from the perspective of the stakeholders. We also did some brainstorming on how to best create a community discussion on the issue of who benefits from city services and who should pay for them.

Not surprisingly, we concluded that this problem, like so many in community relations, hinges on face-to-face communition and a willingness to compromise. It requires that we truly exercise our “boundary-spanning” role as PR counselors, and that we set our “advocacy” hat aside.

I find it curious that no one from Kent State and no one from City Hall is quoted in the story. Doesn’t appear anyone from KSU was even asked to weigh in. Maybe the “admissions tax” is one of those politically volatile ideas that no one wants to touch.

Meanwhile, the city is going broke, and the 800-lb gorilla does what 800-lb. gorillas do — whatever they want to.

I’d say it’s time for a little co-orientation.

2 Responses to Community relations and the 800-lb. gorilla

  1. Community relations and the 800-lb. gorilla

  2. LaDon says:

    I don’t think that taxing the Kent State students would be a bad thing if it is only $20-$40. Ed is right, we do use a lot of the resources in the city. Students just feel that Kent is charging them more than enough to go here already, and they don’t want to hear anyting about giving up more money. If that was the final decision though, I think that a lot of the residents will be pleased, and it will help with the community relations between the University and the residents of Kent. As long as we are here, they won’t have any tax to pay. Instead of comlaining that we are here, they will embrace us. Hmm maybe. It’s a price that I’m willing to pay to get the residents to stop complainning about us in their city.

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