The tax man

Stout, Robert Joe

The tax man ROBERT JOE STOUT Looking back, I remember working for county government as a bad period m my life I considered myself a writer, not an accountant, but fate conspired to put me...

...The tax man ROBERT JOE STOUT Looking back, I remember working for county government as a bad period m my life I considered myself a writer, not an accountant, but fate conspired to put me behind a desk in a basement filled with files, calculators, and stacks of computer printouts My bookkeeper, a doggedly loyal woman who had teen-aged kids and took care of her serm-invalid mother-in-law in addition to working full-time, had a terrible time with the irate taxpayers who stormed in waving their tax bills But I rather enjoyed talking with them, it was a break from the printouts, and most had legitimate complaints Being new to the game (and not an accountant by nature), I tried to explain how the process worked, from how their property was assessed to the way the computer distributed funds to schools, irrigation districts, and fire departments I didn't get through very often I was talking numbers and my visitors were talking feelings So instead of giving answers, I started to ask questions To my surprise, even the most irate and antagonistic had good things to say about government, once the right questions were asked They told me about special schools their handicapped children attended, firemen who rescued stranded animals, and emergency loans the county had granted them after their homes had burned They told me how sheriff's deputies had come to warn them about downed power lines, how probation officers had kept their kids out of juvenile hall, and how emergency crews had pulled their trucks out of mud slides One woman, her head tilted to get full view of me through her trifocals, put her hand on my shoulder and confided that she wouldn't at all mind handing a school teacher the money she was paying in taxes, or giving it to a welfare mother, or even giving it to me for the work I was doing Then she placed her tax bill in front of me, with its columns of figures, percentages, and abbreviations, and, nearly on the verge of tears, said "If you don't care about me and how I feel, why should I care about you9" Her words stayed with me a long time after I left that cramped basement for other work But today the county that had employed me is on the verge of bankruptcy and its taxpayers still believe that they are getting ripped off Why9 I think it's because the process has removed people from the product There's no connection between paying and receiving The lady with the trifocals was right If taxpayers could write their checks directly to the snow plough operator, the foster parent, or the air traffic controller, they might not mind paying because they would know precisely what they were getting for their tax dollars Instead of cutbacks, they' d probably ask for more meat inspectors, freeway builders, FBI agents, and other dedicated public employees who perform essential tasks Government isn't private business, and it can't run that way The more streamlined it becomes—the more like private enterprise, with computers condensing information into financial demands—the more it cuts citizens out of the process When that happens, taxpayers sense that •they have no more control over their government than the holder of a single share of General Motors stock has over the broad decisions made by that company Thus the things most praised in private enterprise become the things most criticized in government In the years before the passage of California's famous property-tax reform initiative, Proposition 13, taxpayers would flock to school board meetings to argue for and against issues as various and vital as sex education, extra pay for football coaches, and computers in classrooms They understood that their local boards established the tax rates by which they would pay for everything from funding teachers' raises to purchasing toilet paper Following Proposition 13, however, distribution of the fixed amounts of property tax assessments were absorbed by the state Taxpayers stopped attending local board meetings or paying much attention to local elected officials The more alienated they became from the process, the more they demanded less government And the less they got Freeway systems, schools, and other support systems eroded As a California dentist told me, "We no longer govern ourselves, and we no longer know by whom we're governed No wonder so many people feel the system has failed " Participation is the key to self-rule Democracy ceases to be democracy when it becomes an impersonal machine The major problem with most of our political institutions today is that they function without interference (read involvement) from those who pay for them, from those they are intended to serve Historically, despite many instances of racial and economic segregation, selective law enforcement, and inadequate health protection, local control over local issues provided Americans with a love for and trust in a system they felt they had devised and had the power to change How to recover that9 One place to start might be for local governments to include pie charts with tax bills, explaining just how tax monies are being spent, and asking for comments As the woman m the trifocals said, "If you don't care about me and how I feel, why should I care about you9" ? Robert Joe Stout lives in Chico, California He is writing a book on Mexico 30...

Vol. 121 • April 1994 • No. 7

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