A taxing question

Published 10:00 pm Monday, October 10, 2016

To the editor:

It seems that, like Hillary’s emails and Donald’s taxes, questions about Polk County’s new jail just won’t go away this election season.  It has become a taxing question for local politics. Still, to be politically correct, the complex should be called a law enforcement center and not a jail.    

Infuriatingly, our majority County Commissioners, Michael Gage, Keith Holbert, and Ted Owens literally will have tied a blue-ribbon on a costly new jail even as they walk out the door, abandoning the very people who supported them the most, those who don’t have stables, pools, and club memberships and who live in small communities like Green Creek, Sunny View, and Mill Spring.  The burden of new taxation will impact them the most, not those who live on ridge tops and horse farms.  That’s the art of this political deal.  The outgoing Commissioners won’t be fiscally or legally responsible. You will.

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The problem with the new jail lies less with its need and more in the way Commissioners in their decisions and deliberations arrogantly disrespected and mistreated the very citizens who elected them. Always a wedge issue in campaigns, Republicans invariably use law and order, criminal justice, mandatory sentencing, and more “law enforcement centers” to exploit mostly rural voters and draw conservative Democrats to their party.  It repeatedly works, especially in the South.

Yet between elections in small counties like Polk, little that is democratic and more that is despotic takes place.  Additionally, the hurried decision about the jail further exemplifies a modern form of corruption now endemic here and elsewhere, and, no, it has little to do with whether officials and their friends are lining their pockets with your funds, whether some taxes are raised or collected while others are either adjusted or ignored, about whether elections are rigged so that outsiders and independents can’t win, about sweetheart contracts with a select few providers, or whether friends are hired in key County positions.  Indeed, so commonplace have these practices become that they not only are cynically accepted by most, but at a certain point they cease to mean anything.

Indeed, corruption in modern societies now takes on a more amorphous, far more insidious form that threatens not only the physical economy but also the moral and family values of smaller places like Polk.  A lack of transparency, an entrenched system of power, an outright lying and evasion without consequences, a closed system that resists criticism, change, and any meaningful citizen participation, and a pervasive lack of ethical judgment and behavior, all underpinned by a punitive, reflexive paranoia characterizes modern forms of corruption.  This letter surely will unveil that paranoia.    

Yet it often comes with entertaining, even beguiling political theater.  While decking everything in red, white, and blue bunting, robustly singing “God Bless America,” issuing proclamations and parading our veterans for all to see, chiseling “In God We Trust” on every public building, and having sanctimonious pocket-pastors rant against selectively perceived evils of modernity, our local Commissioners have become decidedly un-American, un-democratic, and un-Constitutional, the very monsters they attack.

For example, as a County official, do you compromise more in a closed or public meeting?  Which is more important, insuring your party’s reelection, protecting your job, refuting and punishing your critics, or listening to the opinions of those you dislike?  Do you consider the right of free speech a negative one, a nuisance to be allowed only reluctantly and restrictively, or a thoughtful one that enhances the deliberative process?  Should you fire an Army reservist back from active duty and hire a political placemen or give him his job back and betray a loyal party member?  If these inconsistencies become a matter of degree rather than kind, where do ethical and moral judgments lie?  What does it mean to do the right thing anymore?  Sadly, such questions tax not only our polity but also the society that selects and elects them.  This has never been just about a jail.

~ Milton Ready

Tryon, N.C.