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They don’t make libertarian paradises like they used to

I love a good cautionary tale.

For the last few years, Von Ormy has been in near-constant turmoil over basic issues of governance: what form of municipal government to adopt, whether to tax its residents, and how to pay for services such as sewer, police, firefighters and animal control. Along the way, three City Council members were arrested for allegedly violating the Open Meetings Act, and the volunteer fire department collapsed for lack of funds. Nearly everyone in town has an opinion on who’s to blame. But it’s probably safe to say that the vision of the city’s founder, a libertarian lawyer whose family traces its roots in Von Ormy back six generations, has curdled into something that is part comedy, part tragedy.

In 2006, fearing annexation by rapidly encroaching San Antonio, some in Von Ormy proposed incorporating as a town. But in government-averse rural Texas, incorporation can be a hard sell. Unincorporated areas are governed mainly by counties, which have few rules about what you can do on private property and tend to only lightly tax. There’s no going back from what municipal government brings: taxes, ordinances, elections and tedious city council meetings. Still, the fear of being absorbed by San Antonio — with its big-city taxes and regulations — was too much for most Von Ormians.

Enter Art Martinez de Vara. At the time, Martinez de Vara was an ambitious third-year law student at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, a local boy with a penchant for Texas history and right-wing politics.

Martinez de Vara suggested a compromise of sorts. Von Ormy could become a “liberty city” — a stripped-down, low-tax, low-government version of municipal government that’s currently en vogue among the tea party in Texas.

Initially, the city would impose property and sales taxes, but the property tax would ratchet down to zero over time. The business-friendly environment would draw new economic activity to Von Ormy, and eventually the town would cruise along on sales taxes alone.

There would be no charge for building permits, which Martinez de Vara said would be hand-delivered by city staff. The nanny state would be kept at bay, too. Want to shoot off fireworks? Blast away. Want to smoke in a bar? Light up. Teens wandering around at night? No curfew, no problem.

Martinez de Vara and his mother, Sally Martinez, along with other prominent residents, started the Commission to Incorporate Von Ormy. He gave Von Ormy a motto: “The Freest Little City in Texas.”

Folks in Von Ormy liked what they heard and in May 2008 voted to incorporate. Martinez de Vara was elected mayor that November.

In a 2015 presentation he gave at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, Martinez de Vara said that a group of people with no political experience took it upon themselves to do everything a large city like San Antonio does but at a lower cost. He touted Von Ormy’s ability to provide animal control services, a 20-officer police department — a mix of paid officers and volunteers — and an online city hall.

“We were blessed with this unique opportunity to experiment with democracy,” he said.

Today, there is no city animal control program and stray dogs roam the streets. The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office patrols the town instead of city police, and City Hall resides in a mobile home with one full-time staffer — though that’s a step up from the dive bar where City Council met until the owner bounced them out. If you go to the city’s website, you’ll be informed that it’s still under construction.

If Von Ormy is a libertarian experiment with democracy, it’s one that hasn’t turned out as expected.

It’s a fascinating read, so check it out. I had no idea there was such a thing as a “liberty city”, but we do live in a strange state. No one involved in this mess comes across terribly well in the tale, but idea man Martinez de Vara ends up doing pretty well for himself with the professional wingnut crowd, because nothing succeeds like failure. And to be fair, just because Von Ormy flamed out, that doesn’t mean the “liberty city” idea is discredited. There are others like it in Texas, and for all we know (the story neither names nor describes any of them) they could be thriving. Maybe Von Ormy didn’t fail but was failed, if you know what I mean. That would make for an excellent followup article. Anyway, check it out.

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5 Comments

  1. Bill Daniels says:

    You’ll note the reason Von Ormy felt the need to incorporate itself in the first place….to protect itself from being annexed by San Antonio. In that respect, they are a success. They dodged San Antonio’s taxation and regulation. Sounds like they are no worse off than they were before they incorporated. There’s a reason some people don’t want to live in the city, just as there are reasons other people do.

  2. voter_worker says:

    The cautionary tale to me is “Don’t embark on a revolutionary project in a non-revolutionary environment unless your team has a thorough philosophical, strategic and tactical understanding of what constitutes your objective and how it is to be brought about.” Then be prepared for failure anyway. Somehow I doubt that the players in this drama have any understanding of libertarian municipalism, or any of the numerous other strains of this body of thought. The place to look for success stories in alternative communities is the intentional community movement, not Von Ormy, Texas.

  3. Ross says:

    @Bill, fortunately, that wouldn’t have happened in the Houston area, as Houston would have stopped the incorporation in its tracks.I am amazed at how many people want to avoid city taxation, while spending much of their time working in the city, but never contributing a dime to the city to maintain streets, provide police protection, etc. In many places, the taxes are actually higher in the suburbs than they are in the city, at least once school taxes are excluded.

  4. Bill Daniels says:

    @Ross,

    You have a legitimate beef about suburbanites and county folks enjoying primary city amenities without paying city taxes. I can’t say I’m not guilty of that myself.

  5. Steve Houston says:

    Ross, isn’t that what all those many dozens of special purpose annexations in the county are meant for, to tax suburbanites without providing any meaningful services? The MUD enters into an agreement with the city that requires no vote of the residents, splitting the increase in sales tax.

    But taxes are higher in the suburbs often enough, then those suburbanites get to pay fees for all the services the city would have provided them. From HISD’s website: “The HISD Board of Education on Thursday adopted a 3-cent property tax rate increase. This represents the first such rate increase since 2001. The new property tax rate of $1.1867 per $100 taxable value is nearly 24 cents less than the average Harris County school district – maintaining HISD’s position as having the lowest rate of any district in the region.” But either choice is valid depending on what you want, the city finding ways to squeeze money out of free riders in other ways too.

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