By Scott Tibbs, November 13, 2009
Last week, the Bloomington City Council voted to designate the Elks Lodge as a historic property over the objection of the property owner. I spoke during public comment against the proposal, which passed 6-3. Brad Wisler, Tim Mayer and Mike Satterfield voted against the proposal. Wisler made an excellent point that it is the Elks themselves that have made the building historic and he is not comfortable choosing city government's judgment over the judgment of the organization that has owned the building for decades.
The meeting was civil and the arguments were well-presented for the most part. I do wish some on the City Council would develop a sense of humor, though. Stuart Baggerly made a statement that historical designation would prevent the Elks from even changing a light bulb without permission from the city, an obvious example of hyperbole. Basically, Baggerly was making a joke to illustrate why he was opposed to historical designation. City Councilor Piedmont complained about hat statement in comments, completely missing the point that it was a joke.
I was also disappointed with implications that the Elks are "freeloaders" because, as a charitable organization, they do not pay property taxes. Even Steve Volan joined in, talking about how the Elks get city services but do not pay property taxes. Yet, the city gives away over $100,000 every June to charitable organizations, and few complaints are made about the "freeloaders" who actually get a subsidy from the city, rather than paying rent on their property to city government. (Let's be honest. That is exactly what the property tax is.) Furthermore, the Elks membership itself pays property taxes on their own land, and the Elks do a great deal of social service work to give back to the community. This demonstrates the greed of government for ever more tax revenue.
The historical designation basically amounts to a taking by city government. The Elks Lodge sits on prime real estate surrounded by student apartment complexes. While the Elks have no desire to tear the building down, selling the building was considered when the organization was in deep financial trouble a few years ago. If the city wants to preserve the building, they should purchase the building rather than preventing the Elks from doing what they want with their own property. This is consistent with the Fifth Amendment's requirement that private property may not be taken for public use (in this case, preserving a building that the city has designated historic) without just compensation.
I was disappointed by the implication that if the Elks were to move they would not be permitted to take the limestone carvings on the exterior of the building. Those carvings are of great historical value to the Elks organization and if they were ever forced to leave downtown, they would obviously desire to take the carvings with them. Again, this is an example of a taking by city government, confiscating the property that represents an important historical legacy and not allowing the organization that made those carvings historic in the first place to keep them at any new location.
What a majority on the City Council does not understand is that the primary job of government is to safeguard the fundamental rights of the citizens it represents. That is why the government of the United States was established, to guard those rights. That is why much of the Constitution is written as a limitation on government, clearly defining the powers of government and making it illegal for government to violate the rights this nation's founding fathers assumed to be present in all people. The founders believed that rights given by God are independent of government.
Once again, the city council shows their hand and their world view: that government knows best, not the citizens they were elected to serve. But the reality is that the people of Bloomington are far more qualified to run their own lives and businesses and manage their own property than the eight members of the City Council that think otherwise. Ultimately, the Elks Lodge building belongs to the Elks, not the city council.