Budget, not monument controversy, worthy of all the attention

BY ZACHARY HORNER, News + Record Staff
Posted 5/24/19

On Monday evening, the Chatham County Board of Commissioners settled in for another meeting.

The last two had lasted long into the Pittsboro night, and with a public hearing on a budget proposal …

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Budget, not monument controversy, worthy of all the attention

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Posted

On Monday evening, the Chatham County Board of Commissioners settled in for another meeting.

The last two had lasted long into the Pittsboro night, and with a public hearing on a budget proposal that included a 4.19-cent property tax rate increase, you wouldn’t be surprised if lots of people lined up to express their concerns with what was being proposed and presented. After all, nobody “likes” taxes, right?

But there were just two citizen commenters. One read a resolution from the Chatham Council on Aging’s Board of Directors thanking the county for picking up the tab after state and federal grants expired, and another resident spoke about the “triple-whammy” of a rising property tax rate, a proposed but not approved referendum for a quarter-cent local option sales tax and the upcoming revaluation of property values.

These are two people who are doing their citizen duty, to be paying attention to the budget and what it means for the average Chatham County resident, and we applaud them for reading, learning and speaking.

Unlike another recent topic of conversation, the budget has been presented to little fanfare. The commissioners I spoke with, along with County Manager Dan LaMontagne, said they haven’t received much feedback on the budget — maybe one or two emails. We here at the News + Record, and I as the writer of last week’s story on the proposal, haven’t gotten as much as a peep from the populace on it, aside from a letter to the editor. (To be fair, I’m writing this prior to Tuesday night’s public hearing in Siler City on the budget, so this may be moot by the time you read it if that hall is full.)

However, in comparison to recent discussion and heat on the Confederate monument in downtown Pittsboro, the budget seems to have very little impact on the conversation and daily life of Chatham County residents.

Why? Three reasons.

First, human nature pulls us away from the mundane and the complicated. Budgets are simultaneously both. They’re sheets of numbers, figures and percentages, along with phrases and words like “intergovernmental” and “capital outlay” that aren’t part of our daily vocabulary. Budgets both bore and confuse, if not understood properly. The Confederate monument, however, has been painted in simple terms: racism, heritage, history, discrimination, things that evoke easy emotional responses.

On that note, the second reason is that the national conversation around the Confederacy and racism make the monument an easy thing to take sides on. In a political, religious and social culture that makes taking sides part and parcel of the 24-hour day, the monument is built to have competing arguments about it. Budgets are more complex and layered, and simply opposing a tax increase without qualification means opposing needed education and emergency operations funding, in the case of this year’s county spending plan. It’s not as straightforward.

Third, we can’t talk to our friends very well about the budget unless they too are informed and aware of what all it entails. After all, for you to understand the budget is one thing; it’s another for everyone in your friend group to comprehend the ins and outs.

That takes time, effort and energy that, frankly, a lot of us don’t have. It’s much easier — and still worthy, might I add — to talk about eliminating systemic racism and a community’s deeply-held ties to its heritage and how those things might coexist.

But I ask you to try to take that time. After all, the budget proposed is projected to use $77,127,260 of your property tax money, rounding out to about $1,079 per Chatham County resident. Of course, that’s not how much everyone pays, and some people pay a lot more and some less. But let’s frame it in those terms.

If you paid someone $1,079, wouldn’t you want them to spend it wisely, on things that matter, things that affect people on a daily basis? Wouldn’t you want them to seek your input on how that’s spent? Wouldn’t you want them to be held accountable for how they spent it, especially if you were required by law to give it to them?

That’s what we try to do here at the News + Record. We’re watching those things, making sure no proposal is too drastic, no money is spent unwisely, no official is reckless or irresponsible with your tax dollars. They are yours, after all, and go back toward making your community better, in theory. We can debate the merits of taxes and the way we’re taxed and all that all day — in fact, that’s one of the main thrusts of political and government disagreement.

But it’s a nearly indisputable fact that, however invested you are in Chatham County’s government apparatuses, you benefit. If your kids don’t go to Chatham County Schools or you don’t have kids, you benefit from the emergency operations department’s response to a tornado or hurricane coming through your neighborhood. If you don’t actually live in the county but have property here, you benefit from the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office’s charge to protect your property rights. If you don’t own any property but rent an apartment, Chatham County’s building inspectors made sure that apartment complex was up to snuff before you moved in.

Governments and budgets, at least at the municipal level, may not be as sexy as monuments. But they’re certainly worth the same amount of attention, if not more.

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