No Free Lunch

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What do the recent kerfuffle involving Boloco and Boston’s new plan to collect a “voluntary” payment from tax-exempt organizations with properties valued at $15 million or more have in common?

As it has already been put well on this blog, the city’s request that tax-exempt organizations pay money that they do not actually owe is essentially an example of extortion—of the city’s requesting a “voluntary” payment from certain tax-exempt organizations with the implicit threat that if the organization does not comply with the city’s demands, the city could wreak havoc on it in any number of ways. The request at the heart of the Boloco incident is no different.

According to the Boston Globe’s account, the Boloco incident “all started with a call [] from a Menino aide at City Hall, asking Boloco to donate burritos for the mayor’s bike event.” This call is rather troubling: Did the folks at Boloco really think that they were free to decline this sort of a request from the Mayor’s office? On one hand, passing out free burritos at the bike event could have provided a chance for Boloco to reap goodwill from the city and the public, and this opportunity could have been worth far more than the cost of producing 200 burritos. But on the other hand, Boloco’s management may well have decided that the cost wasn’t justified in this particular instance, given the likely size of the event and other such factors. If they had made such a determination, would they have felt free to say no to the Mayor?

If Boloco’s management had said no, the city might not invite them to participate in other such events in the future—which might seem like something of a relief, but perhaps other events would be better attended and/or publicized and Boloco would in fact want to be involved. Moreover, if Boloco’s management had said no, they could well be worried that the city would give them an unnecessarily difficult time in any number of situations in which they interface with City Hall—from routine inspections of restaurants by the Inspectional Services Department to the multitude of permits and permissions that a business like Boloco must secure whenever it wishes to open a new location within the city.

Of course, the city’s request that Boloco donate 200 burritos for an event publicizing a new bike-sharing initiative seems far more innocuous than its demand that tax-exempt organizations—many of which are in dire financial straits themselves—provide millions of dollars in “voluntary” payments to the city. But attempting to differentiate between the two situations based on scale leads to difficult line drawing. What if the Mayor’s office had requested 500 free burritos? 1000? 2500? 5000?

Rather, I would argue that both situations represent local government at its worst: when it is imposing uneven and extra-legal burdens on certain residents, knowing that they very well will comply given the implicit threats associated with non-compliance. It would have been difficult for Boloco, as a single entity, to say no when the Mayor’s office called, but I would hope that the city’s tax-exempt institutions band together and expose the city’s new scheme for what it is.

And, given the way events transpired, I have a feeling that Boloco may not be as quick to heed the Mayor’s requests for “donations” in the future.