It’s not about the $11

Here’s my column that ran in the Washington County Daily News on Tuesday.

Last week this column covered a proposal by the Washington County Planning and Parks Department to impost a new annual fee on the 20,312 private onsite wastewater treatment systems in the county. The passionate opposition to the proposed $11 fee reminds us that the fires that heated the tea party movement and continue to burn for President Trump are still very hot in Washington County.

For what was supposed to be just another sleepy public meeting at 7:35 on a Thursday morning, well over on hundred agitated citizens showed up to have their say. The main room overflowed into two other rooms. At one point, the meeting was paused for 15 minutes while they removed the chairs to be in compliance with the fire code.

By the time the meeting was over, hours later, over sixty people had spoken. Many more people had signed up to speak, but had to leave for reason or another as the hours dragged on. When the speakers had finished, 146 pages of letters and emails that were sent to public officials regarding the proposed POWTS fee were read. The people were almost universally in opposition to the proposed fee, but the commentary exposed the many fissures in the public’s trust of government.

Several of the speakers pointed out that the meeting was being held at an incredibly inconvenient time for anyone who works. One speaker pointed out that everyone in the room was of retirement age — to the jovial objection of a younger woman swimming in the sea of grey. The speakers and letters continued to emphasize that a government that really cares about what the people think makes an effort to schedule public hearings for a time when people can actually attend.

Some of the opposition centered on the fact that the proposed fee is simply a tax by another name and that government fees inevitably and unrelentingly go up. The wise citizens of Washington County are not to be bamboozled by arbitrary word games. They know that money being taken out of their pockets by their government is still money they no longer have, whether referred to as a tax or a fee by government officials.

Much of the outrage had to do with how the money from the proposed fee was to be spent. One woman pointed out that the first nine items in the list of expenses were for salaries, benefits, overtime, retirement, etc. for county employees. These items comprise more than 75% of the entire costs associated with the POWTS program. It is an enormous cost for such a rudimentary government function. Further larded into the cost are expenses for membership dues, advertising, travel, lodging, vehicles, and all of the other expenses that seem so unnecessary and wasteful.

One speaker highlighted the fact that Washington County still insists on having 26 county supervisors – each of which is paid a salary, per diem, and expenses. Meanwhile, the county continues to run Washington County Fair Park and a golf course.

Another speaker pointed out that POWTS owners already pay a county sales tax on all of the construction and maintenance of their POWTS that far exceeds the money allocated to the POWTS program. County citizens have not forgotten that the county sales tax was originally imposed as a temporary necessity to pay for a handful of critical infrastructure projects, but now it is a permanent county fixture.

While the written and spoken opposition to the proposed POWTS fee was wide-ranging and fierce, there was a common theme: The people are sick and tired of government that doesn’t listen to them, doesn’t care about them, and doesn’t respect them. Politicians and government bureaucrats too often operate in a world detached from the realities of the people they are supposed to serve. In this case, a proposal for a silly $11 fee/tax revealed just how large that detachment is.

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