The two worlds
of Marion County
As we inaugurate — peacefully, we hope — a new president, much has been written about unprecedented divides in American society.
Social media and our departing president have done more than their share to draw attention to, and perhaps widen, these divides. But it’s important to recognize that the divides are real and must, at some point, be bridged if society is to flourish.
We’re familiar with multitude of divides national media have focused on. People of color feel unsafe in the streets. Women and people of alternative lifestyles feel underrepresented and discriminated against. People residing in the U.S. without documentation live in fear.
What’s often missed are a raft of other divides, including a large number right here in Marion County. These divides are part of the reason — though never part of the justification — for political unrest.
Marion County clearly exists in two separate worlds.
In one, lived in by people like an ailing grocery clerk we featured in a story two weeks ago, life is a delicate balancing act — a not-so-fun trip to a casino in which the stakes are life and death.
Even with what most of us consider a full-time job, health insurance no longer is automatic. We require people to obtain vehicle insurance before driving, but we don’t require them to obtain health insurance. Despite various tax incentives, few employers are able to continue giving it to their employees.
As an employer who does provide health insurance, we can report that its cost is extreme. We have employees whose insurance costs more than the equivalent of a week and a half of their salary every month.
Years ago, that was the level of spending — roughly one-third of income — that people were expected to put toward housing. Now it’s going not to put a roof over our family’s heads but to protect just the head of that family in case of accident or disease — one or the other of which eventually will claim most of us.
It’s hard to object to employers not providing insurance. They live in the same world as their workers. Many businesses in Marion County could not survive a fire, a lawsuit, or — unfortunately — a pandemic.
They can’t find workers, and their facilities are like 25-year-old cars. They’re valueless to anyone other than the person driving them. If they wreck or break down, repairing or replacing them would be so costly that most people simply roll the dice and hope — as they do when living without insurance.
Businesses and individuals who run up debt, whether for business loans, mortgages, or credit cards, can’t survive unplanned developments. Accidents, illnesses, and pandemics drive them into bankruptcy or, at minimum, collection suits and garnishments.
The extent to which medical costs cause crises is clear whenever looking at court actions we report each week on our Docket page.
At the same time, there’s another world —one lived in by such places like out-of-county hospitals willing to spend millions on expanding into distant markets, only to pull back when their actions prove illegal and there’s a slight disruption in the government dole they planned to receive.
When was the last time you visited any medical facility where furnishings and décor did not seem state-of-the-art? Compare them to private businesses, where buildings, equipment, and furnishings often are held together by Scotch tape and paper clips.
Health care, government, and the various professionals that leech off of them live in a different world from the rest of us.
While most of us still collecting paychecks thank God for how lucky we have been, government is busy spending money not just on raises but also on hiring consultants to see whether yet more raises can be defended.
Consider the huge amounts local governments pay for consultants, engineers, and lawyers and for facilities, equipment, and services provided by various for-profit groups.
These are significant reasons why Marion County’s tax rate has increased 83.2% and the total amount of county taxes, thanks to reappraisals, new fees, and new taxes, have increased by 257.6% since 1997.
During that same period, the cost of living increased only 62.3%. Is it little wonder voters complain about mill levies that have increased one-third more than the rate of inflation? Even more would complain if they noticed that total government taxation has increased more than four times the cost of living or that Marion County’s taxation has increased faster than the taxation in 89 of the state’s 105 counties.
The county is not alone in living in a world apart from the rest of us. This week, the City of Marion canceled trash pickup on Monday because the county’s observation of a holiday meant that the city would have had no place to dump trash it collected.
But rather than send trash workers off to do other needed tasks, like patching potholes and leveling ruts in alleys, it decided to go ahead and have them run their trash routes an extra time, wasting a lot of fuel and time on a day when most people didn’t even put out their trash.
Watching these crews that day and the next was even more instructive. Rather than collect either from the street or from the alley in any given block, they collected from both. When there was trash on opposite sides of the street, crews picked up from one side first, then awkwardly and quite slowly drove to the other side of the street rather than carry bags an extra three feet.
Most businesses couldn’t afford to devote a large amount of their labor force to make-work projects. But in the world of government, this is too often the norm.
It’s like the new independent extension district that, despite getting $76,681 more in tax money from county residents thanks to a new tax this year, is worried whether it can afford to pay rent on county office space now that it has divorced itself from county government.
Or, perhaps, the ambulance service that wants a satellite station with 2½ times the square footage of an average Kansas home — which, by the way, is much larger than the average Marion County home.
Nothing justified the actions of a radical few who seized the U.S. Capitol two weeks ago. But we can most assuredly understand the frustration that led to the action. Some of it may have been racist or bigoted or an attempt to preserve power for an entitled few. But there’s a bigger story most media missed.
In this nation, there’s a huge divide between some of our institutions — government and health care among them — and the rest of us, simply trying to live our lives.
We may not have Donald Trump to kick around anymore, but if that divide is not addressed, he won’t be the last populist to win surprising support. Whether it comes from the left in the form of a Bernie Sanders or the right in the form of some replacement for Donald Trump, we face political challenges because we face everyday challenges that we must unite to resolve, not divide to intensify.
— ERIC MEYER