[Nothing new in that. A cliche, actually. But nonetheless true.]
The parking pass machines at the Princeton Municipal Parking Garage are being replaced. Parking passes are sold at the two entries, for either $20, $40 or $60; the incentive to invest in the larger amounts is that when you do, you get an extra $4 or more added to the card, over and above what you purchased. The incentive to keep a pass in your car at all (rather than take a ticket each time you enter) is the ease of getting out of the garage when you leave; you slide your card in a machine at either of the two exits, the cost of your parking is subtracted from the amount left on the card, the gate lifts, and out you go. You don’t even notice what you’re paying, especially if you can afford to load the card with $60 at a time (plus the additional dollar incentive); the amount left after each exit drops so slowly it seems quite a while before you have to reload the card.
Now for six weeks, while the replacement of the machines takes place, pass holders like me have to take a ticket when they enter anyway, and later pay in cash or by credit card at another machine near the entrance before getting back into their cars to exit. For this reason the other day I found myself in a line at the machine where you pay the ticket before exiting. The line was short but the waiting time long. The woman ahead of me was having difficulty figuring out which slot was which. She complained loudly that the machine wasn’t giving her any change. Then she shrugged and began to walk away, as if that’s what you might expect these days, when it seems every corporation and institution and merchant one deals with is trying to squeeze a bit more profit out of each transaction in which you engage with them. In this instance she was wrong. Not giving change without prior notice would have been blatant fraud, and the subject of all kinds of indignant letters to the editors of Town Topics. Just as she was about the enter the elevator with her paid ticket, the machine made gurgling sounds and vomited out a handful of change.
I was next. I used a credit card and the machine reported digitally that I had paid $6.50 for my three hours in the garage. The woman behind me noticed. “It’s gotten so expensive,” she complained. “It shouldn’t be so expensive. It’s a town garage.”
“Of course, it’s expensive,” I said. “What do you expect? We’re in Princeton.” Then I rashly continued this line of discourse, channeling the economic observations of Richard D. Wolff. (You can find him on YouTube if you’re interested; he’s very funny while being dead serious. In my view, he’s also 95% right.) “And why do you think your Princeton real estate taxes are so high? Double what they are one county north of us!”
She was holding a box that from the look of it may have contained a small pizza. She clutched it more tightly, as if I were about to suggest something subversive. She was right. I was. But since she said nothing, I went on.
“It’s because of the university,” I said. “Rich and famous Princeton University, a private educational institution that holds title to about a quarter of the real estate in the township and also owns millions and millions of invested dollars generating more millions every year in unearned income — yet pays no real estate taxes at all, much less any state or federal tax on what its investments produce. Who do you think is paying to run the town?” I went on. “Who is paying to send firemen to put out fires on campus and to deploy policemen for redirecting traffic while the university builds and builds? You are! If Princeton University paid real estate taxes, our personal real estate taxes would drop way down, and yes — the cost of tickets to park in this municipal garage would too. If you think about it a slightly different way,” I concluded, “at least half the cost of your parking ticket is going into Princeton University’s pocket.”
“But, but…” she sputtered as I turned towards the elevator. “If there were no university, there wouldn’t be a need for the garage. And then where would we be?”
She hadn’t gotten it. “Who said there wouldn’t be a university?” I exclaimed. “Of course there would be. It would just be paying its fair share like the rest of us, instead of getting richer and richer year after year. So it would grow a little more slowly. So what? Many of the rest of us wouldn’t be tsk-tsking in the garage, and pinching pennies to go on living in Princeton.
I didn’t know that woman. I shall never see her again. And I shouldn’t have said it. Imposing real estate taxes on private universities, colleges and posh secondary schools is not going to happen, at least in my lifetime, and what’s the point of talking about things that aren’t going to happen? But as I rode up to the third floor where my eleven-year-old two-door Honda Civic was parked, I felt like a heroine. Perhaps the woman with the small pizza will remember what I said — if not the next time she parks, then the next time she gets hit with an installment of her annual real estate tax. Great oaks from little acorns grow. Another cliche that’s true.