The Liberty City : Planet Money A man in Texas had a dream: To build a whole new kind of city, with no property tax, no debt, and a whole lot of freedom. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.
NPR logo

The Liberty City

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Liberty City

The Liberty City

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


In 2009, James Massey was in grad school. He was studying at a small university in San Antonio, Texas.


Getting a master's degree in public administration.

FOUNTAIN: So you were, like, this bright-eyed and bushy-tailed grad student studying how to become a bureaucrat, basically.

JAMES MASSEY: I feel attacked.



MASSEY: No, that's - yeah, that's correct. We were learning how to run the government.

DEKORNFELD: And to graduate from his program, James needed an internship in city government.

FOUNTAIN: But when he was looking around at all the ones available, none of them quite matched his grad student idealism at the time.

MASSEY: It wasn't, hey, James, we're building Utopia. Come join us. It was, where do you want to learn and hone your skills?

FOUNTAIN: He didn't want some boring paperwork-filing internship. He wanted one that gave him real-world experience.

MASSEY: Give me the city that hasn't started yet. Let me start doing everything from the ground up.

DEKORNFELD: So James looks around, and he hears about this place called Von Ormy just 20 minutes south of San Antonio. It's a brand-new city, and it just incorporated.

FOUNTAIN: James thinks this is perfect because it means he can have a huge influence on how this city gets designed. All that theory he'd been learning in grad school, he was about to put it into practice.

DEKORNFELD: But first, he had to see if they even had an internship program. So he sends an email.

FOUNTAIN: He says the interview process was basically this simple.

MASSEY: You know how to do this stuff? You're studying government. You know how government's supposed to work?

FOUNTAIN: He told them, yeah. And they said, all right, you're hired.

DEKORNFELD: When they're saying, do you know how to do all this stuff, did you think, no, I don't? I'm just a college student.

MASSEY: No. As a brand-new graduate or somebody going on to graduate, I thought I knew everything, so...

DEKORNFELD: Oh, really?

MASSEY: ...Absolutely not. I was like, yes, I'm the right man for the job.

DEKORNFELD: So you were like, hell yeah, I know what I'm doing.

MASSEY: Yeah. Couldn't have made a better choice.


FOUNTAIN: Because James had taken all the right classes - management of public budget, public administration and policy, urban planning.

DEKORNFELD: But nothing would prepare him for what he would find in Von Ormy because all those classes were about building city government. And in Von Ormy, the sole goal seemed to be the opposite.


DEKORNFELD: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Aviva DeKornfeld.

FOUNTAIN: And I'm Nick Fountain. The man who founded Von Ormy had a dream of building a whole new kind of city, one with the smallest bureaucracy possible.

DEKORNFELD: A Liberty City, a place free from burdensome regulations, high taxes and debt.

FOUNTAIN: So where does that leave an aspiring bureaucrat like James? Today on the show, we'll find out.


FOUNTAIN: Now, James had driven through Von Ormy before, but never to it.

MASSEY: Von Ormy is really a one-exit town, kind of blinked and you missed it.

FOUNTAIN: So on his way to the first day of his new internship, while he was driving there, he just sort of took stock of the area.

MASSEY: I remember driving through it thinking nothing's out here.

DEKORNFELD: It's a small town, about 2 square miles. And the main thing that it has going for it is that it's on this big interstate that runs from Mexico all the way to Minnesota, I-35. And like lots of highway towns, it has tire and truck repair shops and gas stations. Other than that, not much.

FOUNTAIN: But to James, this was kind of exciting.

MASSEY: Here I am, this idealistic college student. I got all this learning in my back pocket I can't wait to apply. And I had a blank canvas just waiting to be developed.

FOUNTAIN: James gets to his first city council meeting. Weirdly, it's at a bank. They didn't have anywhere else to meet yet.

DEKORNFELD: He meets everyone in the new government, so the city council people, the acting city administrator. And then he meets the man in charge.

MASSEY: It was, oh, great, this is that guy that emailed us saying he wanted to help. Awesome. Here's the mayor. Glad to have you on board.

FOUNTAIN: The mayor, Art Martinez de Vara. James says as soon as he met him, he thought this guy is super smart.

MASSEY: It was like, if you're going to have to impress somebody or win someone over, it's going to be that guy.

DEKORNFELD: Art wasn't just the mayor in Von Ormy. He was also kind of the closest thing the city had to a founding father.

FOUNTAIN: We asked Mayor Art to show us around. It was pretty obvious that Von Ormy isn't a walking city. We didn't see any sidewalks. So we hopped in his SUV.

ART MARTINEZ DE VARA: We're in Von Ormy, right on I-35 in the heart of Von Ormy.

DEKORNFELD: He took us past a bunch of one-story homes, dumpsters out front, fences around the yards. There are lots of trees lining the streets and scraggly grass everywhere.

FOUNTAIN: Super tienda de fuegos artificiales (ph). There's a lot of fireworks stores here, huh?

MARTINEZ DE VARA: There's a few, yeah.

DEKORNFELD: He said that's on purpose. We are one of the only cities around that doesn't have any sort of regulations banning fireworks stands.

FOUNTAIN: Mayor Art grew up spending summers in Von Ormy with his grandparents on their jalapeno farm. He learned how to drive on Von Ormy's back roads.

MARTINEZ DE VARA: My grandpa used to actually have me drive, and he would sit in the passenger seat and shoot rabbits from the car.

FOUNTAIN: He says he comes from a long line of Von Ormians and, surprisingly, a long line of Democrats.

DEKORNFELD: But the way he tells it, the moment he got his first real paycheck, like a lot of people, he thought, do they really need to tax me this much?

FOUNTAIN: We asked him, so are you a libertarian? And he was like, well, I am a member of the liberty wing of the Republican Party. If I had to sum it up...

MARTINEZ DE VARA: I'm a limited government guy.

DEKORNFELD: In his late 20s, Art started helping out at Von Ormy's volunteer fire department and started to look at the government apparatus up close. Von Ormy was an unincorporated community, which means that they relied on county or state or the feds for everything they needed. They didn't have their own local government.

FOUNTAIN: Mayor Art says, one day, he and some other firefighters were talking about all the problems that Von Ormy had and how the powers that be seemed to be ignoring them.

MARTINEZ DE VARA: It just kind of blurted out of my mouth. I wouldn't really think about it. I just said, well, why don't we form our own city and do it ourselves? The chief just kind of yelled out, hey, Art, why don't you figure this out? And, you know, when the fire chief tells you to do something, you do it.

FOUNTAIN: You say, yes, sir.

MARTINEZ DE VARA: You say, yes, sir.

FOUNTAIN: Mayor Art, if you couldn't tell by now, is a soft-spoken guy. He's not one for fiery rhetoric. But while Art may not have had the charm of the founding fathers, the idea he was pitching was essentially the same.

DEKORNFELD: Art told people, look; San Antonio is a growing metropolis. And in the near future, they are going to try to annex us, and that will come with big city taxation. And you know what it won't come with? Representation.

FOUNTAIN: Or, Mayor Art says, we could see the writing on the wall and come together and do this our own way.

DEKORNFELD: He says people were into it. So he circulated a petition, brought it to a county judge, and the judge ordered an election.

FOUNTAIN: The vote passed. And just like that, they went from being this unincorporated stretch of land to being the city of Von Ormy.

MARTINEZ DE VARA: All those things you always say - well, why doesn't the government do it this way or that way? You had an opportunity to try to do that yourself.

FOUNTAIN: Kind of got to put your money where your mouth is.


DEKORNFELD: They got right to it. They held elections. They got some city councilors. Art became the mayor. Now that they had a city, Mayor Art just had to figure out what kind of city they wanted. Obviously, low taxes - that was a given.

FOUNTAIN: But other than that, Art started to question everything. Do city governments really need all those agencies, or is it just mission creep? Does the government really need to spend all that money, or are they just spending it because they have it?

DEKORNFELD: Obviously, Mayor Art was not the first person to ask these questions. Ever since the dawn of taxes, there have been people who have said, can we just not - people who have started communities with the express purpose of having almost no rules, no regulation, no government.

FOUNTAIN: There are a few famous recent examples of this. There's the Free State Project. They're trying to bring 20,000 libertarians to New Hampshire.

DEKORNFELD: There's also a Free Republic of Liberland, which is a micronation island on the Danube River just between Croatia and Serbia. They started a few years ago. The idea is to make taxation voluntary.

FOUNTAIN: My personal favorite is the Seasteading Institute. They are a group of libertarians who are trying to build, quote, "autonomous floating cities, leaving residents and entrepreneurs free to operate their own lives and businesses."

DEKORNFELD: So far, no flotilla.

FOUNTAIN: Now, Mayor Art's dream was a little more modest than uprooting Von Ormy to a flotilla on the Gulf of Mexico. I mean, they're a suburb of San Antonio, but he still felt like within the framework of Texas, you could make a city that operates with the most minimal government possible.

DEKORNFELD: And that starts with doing everything on the cheap because every dollar is a taxpayer dollar.

FOUNTAIN: Mayor Art says they were like that from Day 1.

MARTINEZ DE VARA: Well, we were beg, borrowing and stealing. We were calling around saying, hey, we're a new town. A lot of people knew it.

FOUNTAIN: For example, Mayor Art heard about a neighboring town that had a police car that they were about to decommission. So Von Ormy asked if they could have it.

MARTINEZ DE VARA: It didn't last a full year.


MARTINEZ DE VARA: But it lasted long enough. And then eventually, I know they would park it on the interstate to let people know, and it would just slow people down.

DEKORNFELD: Mayor Art says this small government ethos - that informed everything, including hiring. He didn't want people who came from other city governments.

MARTINEZ DE VARA: We didn't want to hire people who came from those - that type of institution.

FOUNTAIN: It was a black mark to have something on your resume that would give you experience for the job that you wanted.

MARTINEZ DE VARA: We didn't want any. We didn't want people who had already been institutionalized into these old ways. So we also saw it as an opportunity that we would be giving people career opportunities.

DEKORNFELD: Including young intern James.

FOUNTAIN: If James was looking for a lot of responsibility, he got it. First day of the job, his boss says, hey, we need you to look around at the neighboring cities, figure out which of their laws make sense for us and, you know, borrow them. You can copy and paste.

MASSEY: And that's OK. It's not plagiarism when the government does it.

FOUNTAIN: So it was your first day in your internship, and your boss was like, hey, can you just go write all the laws for our new city?

MASSEY: That was pretty much what happened, yes.

DEKORNFELD: James says they tried to keep the ordinances to a minimum, only adopt a few laws, like for public safety - a fire code, a building code - that kind of thing.

FOUNTAIN: But otherwise, Mayor Art says they weren't putting in place laws that other cities had just because.

MARTINEZ DE VARA: We have no smoking ban.

DEKORNFELD: You can smoke indoors?





FOUNTAIN: Why not? It's a whole new kind of city. Art says it took them about a year or two to get the city up and running fully.

DEKORNFELD: James stayed on as an intern for about a year. And he was such a good intern that, eventually, he was hired as city administrator - top bureaucrat in town. And first day on his big new job, James had all these ideas about what he wanted to do. So he goes to meet with Mayor Art.

MASSEY: We sat down in his truck, and we drove around the city. And he was pointing out all these things in the city like, yeah, there was a big fight there in 1983.

FOUNTAIN: Mayor Art starts pointing out all these undeveloped lots and saying, like, this is what I want here, and that's what I want there. But then they got to talking about how they were going to pay for all that stuff.

MASSEY: What he was saying was, we're going to do all these things with limited taxation to no taxation. He said the ultimate goal was no taxation.

FOUNTAIN: This was new information for James. He didn't know that Mayor Art wanted to completely eliminate the property tax. And James says when he heard this, it was worrisome because he knew the main way that local governments fund themselves is through a property tax. And that's what was keeping the city going.

DEKORNFELD: Soon after the city had incorporated, Mayor Art imposed a small property tax just to help them get off the ground.

FOUNTAIN: But as soon as he could, he told us, he started to cut it.

MARTINEZ DE VARA: We cut taxes 10% and the next year cut ours again. And pretty soon, it became part of our local culture, political culture that when the budget came around, the question was, how much are we going to cut?

DEKORNFELD: Not whether or not you were going to cut, but how much?

MARTINEZ DE VARA: Yeah, how much are we going to cut?

FOUNTAIN: Every year, the TV news would call him up and say, how much are you going to cut taxes this year? It just kept getting more and more media attention. One reporter called Von Ormy a Liberty City, and the name stuck. Soon, people started calling Mayor Art, asking, can you help our city become a Liberty City, too?

DEKORNFELD: Meanwhile, James is thinking, how am I possibly going to pay for all the stuff that Von Ormy needs without any taxes, without any money?

MASSEY: That was really where it was like, man, what did I get myself into here?

FOUNTAIN: It's not like Mayor Art thinks Von Ormy can run on no money. It's just that he has a different idea on where to get that money.

DEKORNFELD: Mayor Art tells James, look at our greatest asset - the interstate. All day, people pull off the highway, buy some gas, some chips, cola, whatever, and throw a few pennies towards Von Ormy's bottom line. That's how Von Ormy is going to pay for what it needs. We're going to increase sales tax revenues.

FOUNTAIN: We're not going to increase the sales tax rate. No, we are going to increase the volume - more stores equals more sales equals more revenue. So what we're going to do is convince a bunch of retailers - even better, big-box retailers like Target or Walmart - to move in. And we'll do this by marketing ourselves as super business-friendly.

DEKORNFELD: And once they're here, Von Ormy's sales tax revenues will shoot through the roof, and we'll be able to pay for everything we need.

FOUNTAIN: Coming up after the break, if you build it, will Walmart come?


DEKORNFELD: James has his marching orders. He sets out to entice big-box stores. So he meets with a bunch of consultants, pitches them on the prime real estate Von Ormy can offer.

FOUNTAIN: But James says every time, the conversation would end in the same place - the toilet.

MASSEY: Where it all fell apart was, you don't have a sewer system?

FOUNTAIN: And what did you tell them?

MASSEY: So basically, when that question was asked, you knew that you were out. What are you going to do? You can't lie. Yeah, I got a sewer line; you just can't see it.

FOUNTAIN: For big-box stores, not having a sewer connection was a deal breaker.

DEKORNFELD: See, everyone in the city of Von Ormy is on septic - aka they have a big tank of waste in their backyards that they need to pump out every so often. And that is fine if you're a family, but it's just not worth it for big businesses. They'd be pumping their septic tanks all the time.

FOUNTAIN: So James knows he needs to get a sewer line out to Von Ormy. And he knows who has one - the metropolis next door, San Antonio. Sure, Mayor Art had spent years dragging San Antonio's water authority through the mud, but it was time to rise above all that and make a formal proposal.

MASSEY: I was putting big-boy pants on, and I was going in, and I was talking like an economic development director. I felt like an adult.

FOUNTAIN: San Antonio Water System tells James, all right, fine, these are our customers, too. Let's work out a deal. And James and San Antonio negotiate for months back-and-forth until, finally, San Antonio says, we will pay for most of it, but we need some buy-in from you guys. And James is like, finally, a reasonable number that I can bring back to my mayor. But when he does...

MASSEY: He said, you're not going to raise taxes in my city. You're not going to adopt anything that has to have a tax increase in my city. So no, not going to do it.

FOUNTAIN: James says, what if we take out a loan, pay for it over time?

MASSEY: He said no debt - absolutely not going to do it.

DEKORNFELD: For what it's worth, we asked Mayor Art about this, and he was clear. He wants sewage as much as the next guy, but he just felt like this was a bad deal. He didn't want to take out loans to pay for it because it wasn't worth mortgaging the future of his town on the hopes that businesses would come in.

FOUNTAIN: Either way, this deal that James had been working on for months was dead.

DEKORNFELD: San Antonio Water System was like, OK, fine, but just so you know, we've devoted a lot of resources to this process, and we need to let our bosses know that we spent those resources on coming up with a deal that you ultimately rejected. So that will be on the agenda for our next big meeting. And we want a representative from Von Ormy there.

FOUNTAIN: Mayor Art didn't go. It was up to James to represent Von Ormy.

MASSEY: So I had to go eat the crow and say, yeah, my city doesn't want it, knowing full and well that this is what I was fighting for months to get. All right. Brave soldier. I'll go do that.

DEKORNFELD: James heads to San Antonio to the meeting. A bunch of important bureaucrats are there - people he looks up to.

MASSEY: I think it might be the only time that I was really nervous when representing Von Ormy - really didn't feel well going into that. I remember being physically sick.

FOUNTAIN: James told us that when they called out his name and he was the representative of Von Ormy, the public face of this stance that he knew was wrong, that felt terrible. He felt like he had a duty to help the residents of Von Ormy. And here he was, spiking their future.

MASSEY: Yeah, that was my lowest point. Right then and there, I had resolved to resign my position.

DEKORNFELD: A few weeks after that meeting in San Antonio, James did resign. Now he works in county government and doesn't talk to Art.

FOUNTAIN: And he says, looking back, the worst part is he feels like he just doesn't have anything to show for his time there - that he didn't accomplish anything close to what he wanted to.

DEKORNFELD: I guess when Art started the city, he had a few goals - maximum personal liberty and no debt and no property tax.

MASSEY: Yeah, foolish.

DEKORNFELD: And (laughter) I mean, that's true. So, like, it seems like a success.

MASSEY: Have you had a chance to tour through the city of Von Ormy?


MASSEY: Briefly. So when you drove through, did you see a functioning city hall? Did you see a water system? Did you see a pick-up system? Did you see a public works truck? If you want to say they're not in debt, I would say they're not much of a functioning city either.

DEKORNFELD: We didn't just take James' word for it. After talking to him, we went back to Von Ormy, talked to more people and asked them, what do you think? Is the city where you hoped it would be? And the general consensus was no.

FOUNTAIN: One notable exception - Mayor Art.

DEKORNFELD: So you feel like the thing you set out to do - make Von Ormy a Liberty City - it worked?

MARTINEZ DE VARA: Absolutely. Still no debt, still no property tax and we have the highest reserve funds we've ever had.

DEKORNFELD: If there's no debt and there's no property tax, why does it still feel like, to a lot of people here, that it didn't work?

MARTINEZ DE VARA: I think some people have a misconception that your municipal government is going to somehow be able to - how would you say that? You know, we promised, A, to provide municipal services in an efficient manner and to, you know, stay out of people's, you know, stay out of people's lives. I think we've accomplished that.

FOUNTAIN: Mayor Art is no longer the mayor of Von Ormy, but he's still involved. The new mayor is his mom, Sally Martinez.

DEKORNFELD: So are town halls like family reunions?



MARTINEZ: Depends on who shows up (laughter).

DEKORNFELD: Mayor Sally is keeping the Liberty City dream alive. She's still working on the sewer thing. She says the revenues are looking up. Sales tax - that's going great. And there's another thing going great - traffic court.

MARTINEZ: Today was court day. We're getting a lot of money also from our police department now.

FOUNTAIN: Like, they're giving out traffic tickets?

MARTINEZ: Oh, yeah (laughter).

FOUNTAIN: How much are you pulling in from traffic fines?

MARTINEZ: I can - I got it over there. Let me go get it.


DEKORNFELD: Sally walks over to her desk, grabs a copy of the proposed budget for next year and shows it to us.

FOUNTAIN: Wait; so hold on. 2018 to 2019, it looks like you pulled in $60,000 in, basically, traffic tickets.


FOUNTAIN: Speeding tickets.

MARTINEZ: Yes. And this is what's projected for next year.

FOUNTAIN: Next year, you're predicting that...


FOUNTAIN: ...You're going to get a quarter-million dollars...


MASSEY: ...In traffic fines.

MARTINEZ: Yes (laughter).

FOUNTAIN: You're expecting that you guys are going to quadruple your traffic fines.

MARTINEZ: This is what we expect to get next. And that's why we don't borrow money unless we have to. And we don't have to right now.

FOUNTAIN: Are you guys turning your city just into a speed trap, where you tax nonresidents, but you don't tax residents? It seems like that's...

MARTINEZ: OK, if you're driving by here and you're going too fast, you get a ticket. It happens everywhere, not just here.


DEKORNFELD: That's the strange thing about this Liberty City.

FOUNTAIN: There's freedom from regulations and taxes if you live there, but if you happen to be driving through, watch out.


FOUNTAIN: If you know about someone trying something new out in the world - could be an experiment in self-governance, could be completely different - and you think it might make for a good PLANET MONEY, email us -

DEKORNFELD: We are on the ground. We're on Twitter. We're on Facebook - @planetmoney. We also have a newsletter you can find on

FOUNTAIN: Today's show was produced by Liza Yeager. Our editor is Bryant Urstadt. And our supervising producer is Alex Goldmark.

DEKORNFELD: Many thanks to the people of Von Ormy who we spoke to but whose voices didn't make it on to today's show. I'm Aviva DeKornfeld.

FOUNTAIN: And I'm Nick Fountain. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.


Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.