‘Tis the season for peace on Earth, goodwill toward everyone – which may explain why, until a courageous resident finally spoke out this week, we had opted not to enter onto our public naughty-and-nice list any of the many comments we had heard about the city’s seemingly spur-of-the-moment decision to spend $900 rewarding three lucky Christmas decorators.
Jackie Hett earns her way onto our “nice” list for questioning in public what many others had been questioning in private since the city decided once again not to issue a long-standing electric rate discount for average decorators and instead award prizes of $500, $300 and $100 to a tiny handful of uber-decorators.
As an incentive to increase the number of decorated homes, the city’s plan makes as much sense as a blue-nosed reindeer who’s afraid of rooftops. Homeowners struggling with a “should I or shouldn’t I” quandary over whether to haul tangled strings of temperamental lights out of the basement and drape them under eaves doubtlessly know they have a snowball’s chance of winning first, second, or third over robo-neighbors who, prize money or not, routinely light their front yards like less sinful versions of the Vegas Strip or Times Square.
One of the area’s most concentrated avenues of angelic brightness annually occurs at the county lake, where incentives are less financial and more about keeping up with the Joneses. If it’s incentives the city wants, it needs – as usual – to look no further than 10 miles to the west to see how Hillsboro’s city government continues to give a rate reduction and its chamber (something Marion no longer has) rewards one out of every four of the first 100 decorators with gift certificates good in local stores. Top decorators receive fame, not fortune.
That’s a promotion that’s much less likely to turn into a lump of coal. And it brings with it no thumpity-thump-thump fear, founded or not, of city cash melting away – or, worse yet, stuffing the stockings of tinsel-hidden cronies of local politicians.
The city’s argument that it really isn’t taxpayer money that the city is giving away would make even Scrooge blush. For many years, the city has sold electricity at a considerable profit and used the windfall to reduce taxes. Charitably, it’s one way to shift some burden onto all manner of exempt government offices that shrink the city’s tax base. Realistically, it’s a way to force those less fortunate, who live in cheap, energy-inefficient homes, to pay more than well-heeled, well-insulated neighbors.
Most troubling, however, is the surprise city officials expressed after hearing Jackie Hett’s concerns. How is it that we heard such questions loud and clear from 600 miles away while city officials had trouble hearing them from six feet away, across a meeting-room floor?
The same officials who constantly deride anyone who dares question them as being beset by negativity have to realize that they have created an environment in which many of their constituents feel so powerless to influence government action that they have tuned out most of what the city does and speak up not where it can do some good, as Jackie Hett did, but only in the silent night (and mornings) of coffee klatches with like-minded friends.
Forget whether we get Marion to plug in Christmas lights. Let’s worry about citizens becoming disconnected from the government that’s supposed to serve them. Officials need to learn that just because an idea is new doesn’t mean it’s better. They have to recognize that their spend-thrift ways hurt the community in more ways than giving away overly generous gratuities. The inflated nature of government payrolls, for example, is a major inhibitor to business development in Marion. If semi-skilled workers can earn more while working less as government employees (who often are paid more than college-graduate professionals in the private sector), where are local businesses to turn to find qualified workers they might need if they hope to expand beyond hobby-like avocations?
Giving away $900 may sound like a pittance to city officials routinely dealing with seven-figure spending and runaway debt. Perhaps it’s time for the ghosts of Christmas present and future to get them back in touch with the people who elected them.
— Eric Meyer