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Jeff Ward: The Municipal Mindset Stikes Again—Right Here on Geneva Patch!

I'll say it again! It's not your money!

Mike, Mike, Mike! (County board member Donahue, that is.) Did you really write that the Kane County’s portion of our property tax bill amounted to no more than what might called a “bad tip”? Don’t you realize, like Pavlov’s dogs, opinion columnists start salivating uncontrollably whenever someone like you says something like that?

I'm really not trying to pick on Mr. Donahue (this time), because I’ve already challenged his interesting insights on chickens. My firm belief was he and his development committee cohorts should’ve taken the bull by the horns—I mean the chicken by the beak—in an escalating rooster fracas pitting two unincorporated South Elgin neighbors against each other.

You also have to give our east-of-Randall-Road Geneva board rep credit for regularly putting his thoughts out there on Patch—while using his real name! Donahue responds to folks who post questions and, unlike the Tribune’s John Kass, he actually can string two sentences together without making my head explode.

And third, I believe he was subtly chiding County Board Chairman Karen McConnaughay for her penchant for political pandering without getting crossed off her Christmas-card list, as I have.

As much as I appreciate Mr. Donahue’s journalistic efforts and encourage him to persevere, when I read, “Even if we eliminated Kane County government altogether, we’d still have to pay 95.2% of our property tax bill … ” I immediately thought “Whoomp! There it is!” The strikes again!

And this particular application of that local government ethos was as perfect an example as I’ve seen in quite some time.

The typical opening gambit consists of the elected official stating the small amount they’re taking off the top really isn’t really all that much. And sure enough, in his second paragraph Donahue said, ”… but Kane County’s share of your tax bill is less than 5 percent.”

It’s the same tactic Geneva Alderman Bob Piper employed when he dismissed a 5 percent water rate hike by saying that’s all the increase amounted to.

The next step is the counterattack. That’s where the alderman, county commissioner or school board member indignantly rattles off the plethora of services taxpayers receive in return for yet another property tax increase on a home that’s lost half its value.

Donahue nailed this one! His list of county benefits included the various offices of the state’s attorney, sheriff, court services, coroner, emergency management, development, recorder, regional office of education, KDOT, county clerk, assessor and treasurer.

In essence, what Donahue was trying to say is, “Look at the bang you’re getting for your meager KC tax dollar!” But it’s really a form of misdirection—you don’t have to talk about cuts—and it’s almost always a disingenuous argument.

The bang for that buck isn’t the result of anything the County Board is or isn’t doing, it’s a function of spreading the tax burden over a half-a-million people, most of whom you don’t even have to serve. Every county citizen pays for county services whether they live in an unincorporated area or not.

For example, though Genevans are served by the GPD, we still pay our share of the sheriff’s budget.

And speaking of misdirection, once the elected official realizes his argument has rightfully fallen on deaf ears, they always fall back on a sentence that sounds something like this: “We’re not nearly as bad as (fill in the blank.)”

This, the third and final phase in the deployment of the municipal mindset, always makes me want to run down Randall road naked and screaming during rush hour.

Like clockwork, Donahue concluded his column with, “I’m going to send you the phone numbers for all those people who charge the other 95.2 percent on your tax bill.”

Now, I love Geneva Alderman Dawn Vogelsberg, but when, in response to my protests of Geneva’s recent $50 property tax hike, she whispered that the School Board was even worse. I barely managed to keep my clothes on.

Yes! Ms. Vogelsberg is correct! The schools do suck up most of our property-tax dollars, but as you may have noticed, I’m not letting them off the hook, either!

And how does the fact that you’re not as bad as another taxing body ever absolve you from thoroughly re-examining your own status quo? How does that absolve the County Board from, once again, raising property taxes by any amount when so many Kane County citizens are losing their homes?

Mike! I know you’re new, but the chairman didn’t raise those taxes all by herself! I don’t care if the county levy is .0000000001 percent. You’re not entitled to our money!

I repeat, my goal isn’t to specifically pick on Mike Donahue, because he’s not nearly the only one infected by this insidious disease. I also believe he sees the politics in the chairman’s tax-break pandering.

No! My goal, dear reader, is to arm you with the knowledge of exactly how the municipal mindset works because only then can we strike back against the empire by turning our local elected officials, one by one, away from the dark side.

May the force be with you.

Jim MacRunnels September 05, 2011 at 12:41 PM
Jeff, you hit it on the head again. All bodies of government need to look in the mirror first when it comes to taxes. Work on their waste first.
Colin C. September 05, 2011 at 01:35 PM
You seem to believe that the taxes we in cities pay to Kane County do not fund services that are vital to our cities. Wrong. The County Jail, the Sheriff’s Dept. the District Attorney serve us as do almost all of the County offices. In many cases they perform functions that we need no matter where we live in the County, including maintaining portions of the road that you want to use to run down naked. You manage to criticize a lot of people without suggesting a specific way to correct the problem. Taxes are the price that we pay to live in a civilized, cooperative society. If taxes, and the services that they fund, were to end tomorrow we would not end up in paradise, but rather in the “Lord of the Flies”. It would not be pretty. So I challenge you, if you want to “correct” the “municipal mindset” find in our municipal budgets the specific services that you feel we want to do without. Pair the projected savings with what we will have to give up; safe drinking water, criminals off the streets, useable roads, you name it. I know that combing through budgets is a lot of work but that is the problem. Remember all those who run for office promising to cut taxes and don’t when they get elected? It’s because when they actually have to deal with reality they realize that there are damn few places to cut that the voters will accept. It’s easy to rail against taxes but when reality looms it’s tough to choose what we actually want to do without.
Jeff Ward September 05, 2011 at 01:50 PM
Colin, First, in many previous columns on the subject I've made plenty of specific suggestions for cuts. They're still available on Patch. Second, you missed the point here. As Mr. MacRunnels noted, my goal is to get our local representatives to look in the mirror first. That's something they too often fail to do. My point was to pull them away from the perspective that, just because others are worse, that doesn't mean they can't improve. Whenever a politician says, "we really don't take that much off the top" it belies a mentality that they're somehow entitled to our tax dollars - and they're not! They need to look at the process as if that money was coming out of their own bank account - and they don't. Any kind of tax hike with our neighbors losing their homes is unconscionable. The argument in this column is more along the lines of giving a man a fish or teaching him how to do it. Sure, I could make more cut suggestions, but if we the people can get them to think differently, the cuts will come. Jeff
Colin C. September 05, 2011 at 04:07 PM
Jeff, I understand your point and I agree that people in positions of authority can quickly develop a sense of entitlement. This is not exactly limited to government. Remember the heads of certain about to be bankrupt auto manufactures who were responsible for tens of thousands of American jobs flying to Washington in their private jets to plead their case only to reveal that they had no clue what was going on in their own companies? (That's another thing that drives me nuts: the people who insist that government be run "like a business". Which business? Lehman Brothers? GM or AIG? More than 50% of all start-up go bankrupt within two years. Spare me!) But I digress. I know that you have made some specific suggestions in the past and I even agreed with some of them. I understand that your point was a general one. But I will also defend my point: it is far too easy for all of us to complain about taxes and taxers without considering just whose ox is going to get gored. So, I will continue to plead for specifics and if the complainer, whoever it may be, is not willing for their ox to get it I probably won't be much impressed.
Mike Donahue September 05, 2011 at 04:11 PM
Jeff, Jeff, Jeff! Thank you for not picking on me. And thank you for diagnosing me with this municipal mindset malady. It sounds serious, but I’m afraid you misread the test. The real meaning in my little parable is much deeper than the common cold. If you re-examine it without jumping to conclusions you might get it.
Lou Pierce September 05, 2011 at 06:19 PM
Jeff, I have read and re-read (and re-re-read...) your diatribe, especially the part about what you call the "bang-for-the-buck" argument. All you have managed to do is to disclose your lack of a feeling of community. Maybe it doesn't resonate with you when you hear "we're all in this together." It does for me, and it always has. It really does "take a village" or a township or a county or a state, not just to rear a child, but to assure us all of a safe, liveable place to enjoy our lives as we attempt to make our journey through our lifetime in the best way we can. You are corrrect when you remark that the relatively small effect of the county's share or our property taxes is due solely to the spreading of the cost of running the county over the entire population of the county, but I infer from your comments that you believe there's something not quite right or fair about taxing people for county services when they live in incorporated areas. I beg to differ. I live in Geneva, but I'm content to pay for county services such as law enforcement by the Sheriff's Department, because it is a benefit to me as well that the unincorporated areas of the county are policed, just as Geneva. Without that, I can envision meth labs springing up more widely than they probably do now. I will have to continue in a subsequent message because I'm quicklly running out of space. ....
Jeff Ward September 05, 2011 at 06:22 PM
Mike, In my phone message to you I explained that I understood what you were trying to do on many levels. It's just that I just couldn't pass up the overt references (and I think you, to some degree, meant it). Jeff
Jeff Ward September 05, 2011 at 06:31 PM
Mike, Just to be sure we're on the same wavelength, and since enlightenment is always my goal, perhaps you might elucidate your intentions! Jeff
Lou Pierce September 05, 2011 at 06:35 PM
Jeff, continuing... It certainly is to the benefit of all Genevans that there is someone policing the roads in the county, lest an enranged opinion writer is running through who-knows-what neighborhood sans clothing of any variety, rather than on a college campus where such shennanigans belong. My wife and I have both retired after long careers in which our job locations were always in different counties from each other (and different from Kane County). We reared our children without, fortunately, the need for municipal or county direct financial or other assistance. I am glad that such agencies were availble should we have needed them, and that they were (and still are, mostly) available to others. We worked diligently to fulfill our responsibilities. So far as I can tell, so do almost all of our neighbors and fellow city and county citizens. Who knows, we might have been one accident or illness away from needing assistance. I firmly believe that to be true of most people having to avail themselves of assistance. If there are a few people who not fulfilling their own responsibilities through ignorance or whatever, I can accept that it is more important to provide the help thy end up needing than to leave them to suffer or die "on the streets." If they're deliberately gaming the system, that's a different story that should be dealt with by other services we are paying for. Sorry, if I misunderstood your intentions. I'm sure you'll feel free to tell me.
Jeff Ward September 05, 2011 at 07:28 PM
Lou, Sadly, I'm not sure I understand what you're saying. Maybe I should've added that part about how the sheriff - and the other services - benefit all of us. My lesser point was, as Kane County grows, most of the population resides in cities. And despite the fact the county gets a full share of those taxes, they don't nearly have to provide us the services they must to our unincorporated brethren. I dare any Genevan to try and call animal control to get them to come out within our city limits. So when MIke bragged about the bang we get for our county buck, it was a disingenuous argument. My greater point was, the language and arguments our elected officials use belie an entitlement mentality when it comes to our money. Jeff
Jeff Ward September 05, 2011 at 07:36 PM
Colin, Buy all means continue pleading! As long as you take my body of work into account and not just this column. I don't think anyone really wants to hear me ramble on for over 1,000 words at time. Jeff
Lou Pierce September 05, 2011 at 09:06 PM
Jeff, I read my two-part message again, and I don't see why you aren't sure you understand it. I am forever rewriting sentences in an attempt to make them more clear. I am positive that I could make my writing better understood, but I don't think it is impenetrable at this time. I do see that I have a tlype in what was intended to be "enraged." I'd be surprised if that were the culprit. To be honest, I think the problem here is that you and I have very different mindsets. I don't have a major problem with what you call your "greater point." It probably lies closer to the "entitlement" issue. Unfortunately, entitlement is a word that has been misused so much that there is a wide-spread misunderstanding of it, at least in come contexts. However, I believe that the use you were making probably adheres closely to the traditional meaning, so any disagreement you and I might have probably relates to what we consider to be appropriate or inappropriate use of the the funds raised from the public via taxes. A small part of that goes to paying the costs of operating the county. Most of the people working for the county receive payment for doing so. Obviously, that can be abused. We can both agree on that, even if we disagree on what constitutes abuse. Wages/salaries and benefits (as opposed to "perks" should be comparable to those in the private sector. Go to my next message (I hate this short space limitation, Patch!)
Lou Pierce September 05, 2011 at 09:29 PM
Jeff, continuing... Working conditions should be reasonable, without being extravagent -- law firms try to justify their luxurious spaces as being necessary to compete for clients. Well, sure, but to what extent (and to what extent should that be deductible)? To be as terse (and blunt) as possible, just because you or I disagree with the county board on what is an appropriate use of public funds, it doesn't follow that the board members are feeling particularly "entitled" to doing what they want. Without evidence to the contrary, I assume that they and their individual constituencies believe in what they're doing. If you and/I disagree, we are free to campaign against the "evil-doers" in the next election. If we think an action is illegal, then we have other recourses, including notifying the county's own legal staff. Maybe our disagreement boils down to a philosophical one about whose money is involved. You said quite emphatically in a response to Colin that, "Whenever a politician says, 'we really don't take that much off the top' it belies a mentality that they're somehow entitled to our tax dollars - and they're not! They need to look at the process as if that money was coming out of their own bank account - and they don't." Continued in next message.
Lou Pierce September 05, 2011 at 09:29 PM
Jeff, continuing.... I remind you that we have elected these "politicians" (clearly being used in a pejoritive way) to determine how much money is required to best to their jobs, and we have delegated to them the authority to determine what activities to fund. I share your concern that they may be making bad choices, but that doesn't mean they don't have the right to make those choices. Again, if we disagree, we can campaign against them. Ranting and raving about about feelings of entitlement means you aren't taking the time to investigate the issues. Instead of blathering on about their personal feelings, why not argue the merits of the actions taken. This is a democracy, so approach the matter with arguments designed to change the minds of the people we elected to act on our behalf, not to belittle them. Lou
Terry Flanagan September 06, 2011 at 03:42 AM
There is also a taxpayer mindset that believes that the amount of taxes one pays actually pays for all of the services one receives. Back in 2009, when the citizens living along Manchester wanted the alley resurfaced, a number of people claimed that the taxes they paid should be enough to cover improvements. I decided to find out if this were true or not. The estimated cost of improvements was $500,000. There were 83 parcels of property involved with an average annual tax payment to the city of $301.07. The total annual payment to the city for those properties would be $24,988.11 per year. At that rate, it would take 20 years for those residents to pay for the improvements if all of their city tax dollars went to that project alone. The lesson is that things cost more than we think and our taxes don't go as far as we think they do. So many times we are getting good value for our money even when we may not think so.
Jeff Ward September 06, 2011 at 12:12 PM
Terry, I'm not disagreeing with your logic. There are times the system really works - like in the Geneva liquor ordinance case. That said, I would feel much more comfortable if, on occasion, you prefaced a comment with the caveat that you're married to a Geneva alderman. Much like when I write a column on teachers I typically state that my wife is currently studying to be one. Jeff
Jim MacRunnels September 06, 2011 at 12:14 PM
An example of the taxpayers not getting a good value for our money is the Chairman of Kane County spending over $460,000 to fight the funding of $500,000 to run the Circut Clerk's office. We the taxpayers should see in the next week or so if the cost is even more. How about those pay raises for the 14 chosen ones? Over $20 million in current and future cost, another "good value". The list goes on for ever.
Terry Flanagan September 06, 2011 at 02:32 PM
Jeff, The first sentence of my profile, which you can see when you click on my name, states that my wife is alderman in the Fourth Ward. It's nothing I'm ashamed of or wish to hide. If I preface every comment with this information though, it not only becomes redundant, but consumes limited comment space. On any blog posts I write dealing with city issues, Rick adds this information as a footnote to the post where it stands our and is easily seen rather than being buried in the text and either glossed over or possibly interpreted as an apology for one's opinion. I think it's appropriate there and I'm glad Rick appends that information to the post. I notice that you don't have a profile.
Jeff Ward September 06, 2011 at 03:58 PM
Terry, This was not meant to be a sarcastic comment. I do realize it's in your profile, and again, I'm not saying every comment. As for me, I'm so famous no profile is necessary! Jeff
Terry Flanagan September 06, 2011 at 05:27 PM
Sorry for taking your comment as sarcasm, Jeff, but you are the master of riposte, As for your profile, with your notoriety you're probably better off keeping a low profile anyway, especialy in Elgin :) Seriously, though, your points are well taken. Obviously, the attempts to justify tax rates or rate increases aren't working on you and probably not on a lot of other people either. But occasionally, you might want to talk about what you would consider as a reasonable defense for spending decisions and how we reach those decisions.
Jeff Ward September 06, 2011 at 05:42 PM
I do drive more safely in Elgin! Jeff
Jim J September 06, 2011 at 07:36 PM
Jeff- While I agree with your column today, I couldn't resist suggesting that you do us all a favor and: Read more John Kass. Jim James PS Sarcasm alert.
Rick Anderson September 07, 2011 at 12:38 AM
Government is the epitome of a ponzi scheme.

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