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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

Virginia’s Top Preparedness Advisor Says 3rd Annual Tax Free Supplies Holiday Starting Today Has Been ‘Win-Win-Win’ Success For Govt./Business/Public — Question Is What’s Keeping Other States, Feds From Trying Similar Incentives?

May 24th, 2010 · 2 Comments

With Virginia’s third-annual tax-free preparedness supplies holiday week starting today, the Governor’s top preparedness adviser told me in an interview that the idea has been a win-win-win’ success increasing focus on disaster readiness among the public, business and the media. ”The holiday gets people’s attention, says Terrie Suit, assistant to Governor Bob McDonnell for Commonwealth Preparedness, “before a hurricane is just off the coast.”

During the Virginia holiday, sales tax is eliminated for preparedness-related products that cost up to $60 or on generators $1,000 or less from May 25-31.

Suit calls the week a “‘man-made’ opportunity to promote preparedness” in a manner that solely an awareness-oriented readiness week cannot. She says it gives preparedness advocates “something to talk about with the public” —  a tangible benefit — rather than just pleading with them to prepare every hurricane season.

2009 Virginia Sales Tax Ad

Normally, when government wants to influence social behavior, it goes beyond words and employs carrots and/or sticks: incentives (retirement savings, recycling) or disincentives (it’s ‘click or ticket‘). The former, incentives, is far more appropriate for preparedness. But to date, with the exception of these tax free holidays tried by a couple of states, government has not used any incentives on preparedness. So, it’s not surprising the public has by and large not acted, and the nation has not made enough progress on citizen readiness. In Virginia, using a ‘carrot’ — one of the public sector’s levers (the tax code) — sent a message to Commonwealth residents as well as its media and private sector that government is serious about this policy objective.

Suit says that the “retail community has taken the week and run with it”. A number of major retailers have integrated preparedness products into their overall marketing promotion this week: Walmart will use ReadyVirginia flyers as bag stuffers, Target will run newspaper advertising and place point of purchase info on exempt items, Kroger will run newspaper advertising and make in-store displays. Lowe’s will take out newspaper advertising and make in-store displays of tax exempt items.

Lowe’s will also be giving customers an additional 10 to 15 percent discount on these hurricane-related products when they shop during the holiday (see ad below). The holiday is also sponsored by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and state Retail Merchants Association. Profit incentive for private sector makes it more likely they will work hard to promote and distribute products to the public. rather than just putting up signs encouraging people to buy supplies.

Though Suit clearly believes that the holiday is a success, it is difficult to evaluate with a reliable metric either how much the public’s preparedness has increased or the tax holiday’s revenue impact as the state cannot measure sales tax it does not receive. I (and the retailers) would argue that bringing more people into the stores — particularly during difficult economic times — results in incremental sales and taxes on non-emergency items.

Louisiana, the only other state with a tax free preparedness period (May 29-30), did a study that estimated that the weekend cost $2 million in lost tax revenue on emergency products. But I think a better indicator is the enthusiasm of retailers for the holiday, which they believe brings in new (and taxed) revenue in other parts of their stores. And to Virginia’s Suit, who is responsible for preparing a state which has been hit hard by hurricanes, says, “we can’t afford not to do it.” What also needs to be counted in any fiscal evaluation is the amount of paid corporate advertising and increased media coverage, particularly in comparison to the infrequent and inconvenient rotation that the unpaid preparedness PSA’s usually receive.

A Lowe’s newspaper advertisement in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch promoting Virginia’s Hurricane Preparedness Holiday,

As Virginia’s experience has shown, there much more that could and should be done to create preparedness partnerships with private sector on the local and national level. This week, during FEMA’s webinar kicking off National Preparedness Month, a participant on the call asked officials from the Ready Campaign if the government would be working with businesses to make emergency supplies available for activities during the Month. It’s a great question. But at present, the answer is no, which is missing a great opportunity.

As has been frequently discussed on this blog, government should be reaching out to manufacturing and retail companies in the preparedness field (ie. food, wireless devices, bottled water, big box stores) to work out marketing/promotion tie-ins that would offer free or deeply discounted products — in addition to the sales tax break — as part of preparedness information activities. (As the government has limitations working directly with companies, it would want to include the American Red Cross to work with the sponsors).

For example, why not partner with wireless communications retailers to provide a discount on cell batteries or phones (or free minutes) if people brought in a completed family communications plan into the stores? Or big box store could offer an extra free emergency supply six pack of bottled water with the purchase of a case. Or discounts to fill ‘go-bags’? Here again is a perfect opportunity for a win-win-win for the public, business and government emergency management departments. Businesses want to do more around preparedness because it gives them the opportunity to do good and do well (as this press release from Target indicates). As with most obstacles to citizen preparedness, it takes focus and coordination more than money to move forward.

President Obama just issued a proclamation declaring the 23rd-29th National Hurricane Preparedness Week. But while well meaning the document, to be frank, is just perfunctory words: “I urge individuals, families, communities, and businesses to take time to plan for the storm season before it begins.” By contrast Virginia Governor’s McDonnell’s Preparedness Week announcement has the same exhortations of the President, but it comes along with some tangible initiatives to make it easier for the public to actually follow the recommendations. And all that is necessary is to pass the law and then some organizing by the Commonwealth’s Department of Emergency Management.

In his proclamation, Obama says:

“The National Hurricane Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, recommend taking several important steps to ensure safety. These precautions include: developing a family disaster plan; maintaining an emergency supply kit; securing homes, businesses, and belongings; and learning evacuation routes.”

But a survey released by the U.S. Homeland Security Department’s Citizen Corps last year indicates that most Americans are ignoring both FEMA and NOAA and, for that matter, the President himself who made the same request of Americans to prepare last year. The ask would be far more effective if the Administration had already worked with the private sector to provide supplies for the public, had passed legislation allowing citizens to write off emergency supplies, or had established a day when Americans would rehearse their plans.

Now, that might sound to some people as a lot, particularly relative to what the government does now on preparedness. But if officials are serious about citizen readiness — and I think they are — then government has to followup those words with actions. If not, then let’s not expect citizens to be prepared in advance and make our disaster response plans reflect that. (I also don’t think most Americans would object to targeted, inexpensive and useful initiatives on disaster preparedness.)

Suit, a former state legislator said the tax holiday enjoys bipartisan support in the legislature. It was originally signed by a Democratic governor and is being continued by his Republican successor. Virginia is one of two states (along with Louisiana) that have a tax holiday for preparedness products. The idea is not a panacea, but Suit says any state that wants to being more attention citizen preparedness should try it.

Here in New York, I recommended it to my local State Assemblyman Jonathan L. Bing. He introduced a bill which would create which would create a ‘tax holiday’ for preparedness supplies and “Go-Bags,” in the New York State House. Under the legislation, New Yorkers would be able to buy emergency supplies without paying state sales tax between September 1st-11th (the period between the anniversaries of 9/11 and Katrina) and purchase pre-made “Go-Bags” tax free throughout the month.

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Tags: Hurricane Preparedness · Preparedness Incentives · State Preparedness

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