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City versus Country
The other day there was a knock at my front door, when no guests were expected. It was a local person campaigning for public office. I hesitated, when I saw her, between telling her I was in the middle of something and inviting her in.
"I'm Linda Garrett and I'm running for County Commissioner."
I decided to slip out and hear what she had to say, but I didn't invite her in. We stood on my front porch and talked.
My living room borders on the pens, where I had just been, and where Katie, my assistant, and Bow, my chimpanzee little boy, still were. If Bow didn't like what the lady had to say, he would make raspberry sounds of disapproval that would make it hard for us to have a quiet conversation. If she didn't like Bow, I was afraid it might mean trouble for me. All government wields the power to destroy, and I tread softly. But my property taxes had gone up considerably two years in a row, and I was interested in hearing what this woman had to say about it.
"What is your platform?" I asked the candidate once we were outdoors.
"To do the job," she replied.
I laughed. "And what is the job?" County Commissioner is one of those local government positions that even third year law students have trouble describing.
"Actually, it's the job I'm doing now," she said. "I have that job."
In other words, she was the incumbent. I felt a little sheepish about not knowing that. "Yes, but what do you do?"
"I work for a balanced budget. I represent the county on regional boards. I help to maintain property rights. I represent the County in Jeff City. I work with the assessor's office."
It was this last that I wanted to know more about. "My property has been re-assessed two years in a row now," I said. "What's going on with that?":
"It's not our doing," she said. "We were against that. We tried to fight it."
"Yeah, I know," I said. "I read the insert with the last assessment."
"Oh, that wasn't the whole story. They wouldn't let us tell the whole story."
"Okay. What's the whole story?"
She shifted. "Well, first of all, you know how we used to have a Township Assessor, and then they did away with that?"
I remembered. When we first moved here, I had to go pay my taxes in the dead of winter. It was because the Township Assessor's Office had trouble sending out tax notices to people who had just moved here. I received my notice after the due date. Panicked, I realized my taxes were delinquent, and I called the Township Assessor at the number on the notice.
"All my kids have the flu," she said. "So I'm staying home today. But you could drop it by." She gave me her address.
I drove out there with Sword, afraid of catching the flu, but more afraid of incurring late charges or getting a tax lien against my property. As we drove up to the house, we noticed some debris in the front yard, and some children's toys. It was a modest, house, with siding, not brick, exterior. "Isn't the doll going to catch cold?" Sword asked me, as we made our way to the door, past a naked little blond doll in a pink stroller. Sword had a pink stroller like that for her dolls, too.
The Township Assessor was a friendly, unassuming woman who took my check and promised to send me a receipt. She was not anything like any of the public servants I had ever dealt with before. She was just a regular person!
"Now, they did away with the Township Assessor, and they made this new office, County Assessor. And Debbie, she tried to do her job, but they wouldn't let her," the County Commissioner continued. "Now it's true that before then, there hadn't been a re-assessment for over ten years, and things were really out of date. So... Debbie went out, and she looked at every single property. Wherever a barn had been taken out, or a house had burned down, she re-assessed that place lower than what was listed. And wherever a new house had been built, she re-assessed higher. She was real fair about it. And it took her a long time to finish, cause it was hard work, and finally she turned in her list, and they said: `No. That's not good enough. We want you to raise the assessment 25% across the board.'" Here the commissioner paused for effect. "And Debbied say: 'No!' And I backed her up. And then they said: 'We won't pay you your salary!'"
There followed a long and detailed account of the various tactics employed by the state government to pressure the local government into raising local taxes against the wishes of the local populace and their elected representatives. In the end, unable to hold off the powers that be, after a long fight, the County Assessor and the Commissioner compromised with the state. "But next year, Debbie's going to have to reassess everything right back down, seeing as how the market's gone bust," Linda Garrett added with a grin.
"I'm glad to hear that," I said.
"You know what?" she said to me. "Sometimes I don't think it's Republicans and Democrats. That stuff is really not what it's about. I've worked with Republicans and I've worked with Democrats. I can do both. What it really is is City versus Country. And that goes for the national election, too."
When she first said that, I wasn't sure what she meant. I squinted, trying each possible meaning on for size. Did she mean "city" as in "local" and "country" as in "national"? But no, that wasn't it. It was "city" as in "urban" versus "country" as in "rural". Once she had left, I kept thinking about that.
In the country our elected officials are our neighbors, and so are our fellow taxpayers. In the country, just about everybody owns property, but nobody is rich. In the country, when you vote to raise taxes, you know that you're voting to raise them on yourself and your neighbors. In the city, taxes are raised on some for the benefit of others.
In the city, people with salaries that are very high consider themselves poor and in need of support. In the country, people with incomes below the national poverty line are middle class. In the city, people think in terms of them and us. In the country, people think in terms of what we all have in common. In the city, you are your brother's keeper. But in the country, people follow the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Good neighbors know that the most neighborly thing to do is to live and let live.