By David Rogers. November 17, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC – For a government by, of, and for the people, “the people” — INDIVIDUALLY — must participate for it to be effective. Those who fail to participate really have nothing to complain about.
Not to take anything away from the fine individuals who were recently elected (we consider all of them friends not only of us but of the Town), but the level of participation in Blowing Rock, as well as the rest of North Carolina is sorely lacking.
And it is lacking on two levels:  the number of candidates competing to serve the public interest(s); and  the number of voters actually casting ballots.
Statewide, only 16.81% of registered voters cast their ballots in the November 7th municipal elections, according to the North Carolina Board of Elections website. The ratio of participating voters was even worse in all of Watauga County with only 11.68% (2,326 out of 19,915) of registered voters going to the polls.
The level of participation is sorely lacking.
Thanks largely to grassroots campaigns successfully orchestrated by challengers Charlie Sellers for Mayor and Virginia Powell for Commissioner, Blowing Rock saw a 41% participation rate this year, with 438 of the 1,243 registered voters living in the Watauga County sections of Blowing Rock marking ballots, although a write-in vote for mayor, “Waylon Watson,” was actually a non-vote because no such person resides in Blowing Rock and would have been ineligible to serve.
Why Is This Important?
Every municipality in America probably has more needs than it has cash to address those needs. So to that extent, Blowing Rock is not unique.
Our Town government and its elected policymakers, in conjunction with Town staff, develop a budget to allocate scarce resources to, presumably, the most pressing needs.
But this is where it is especially important to have participation in our systems of self-governance. Different people have different skillsets, as well as different values and perspectives. Consequently, they might have very different assessments of which needs are more important than others.
This may well be a crass over-simplicification, but Citizen A, for example, may think that since Blowing Rock is not a Third World country, the most important thing for us to spend Town money on is to make sure that everyone has clean water and an up-to-date sewer system that manages human waste most effectively.
Citizen B, on the other hand, might place a higher priority on the services of Parks & Recreation because it contributes to increased tourism — on the assumption that having more opportunities for family fun puts more heads in beds, which in turn generates more occupancy tax and sales tax revenue to help pay for those infrastructure needs.
Citizen C has a totally different view altogether. She is a proponent of year-round economic development, so her priorities might be to expand access to high speed Internet, provide incentives for businesses to locate here, and maybe even to relocate Town services.
Voting is a license to complain when perceived unfair or improper decisions are made by Town Council.
None of these viewpoints is necessarily more “right” than the others, nor are they “wrong.” They are simply different.
Depending on who gets elected, a Town budget allocating scarce resources to address abundant needs will reflect the viewpoints and priorities of those willing to serve in elected office. Of course, part and parcel to that thought is that the implemented policies and decisions reflect the viewpoints and priorities of those candidates receiving the most number of votes in being elected.
Town policymakers never come under heavier scrutiny than those times when they vote to raise property taxes. Since an estimated 60+% of the Town’s budget (not counting periodic grants and other unusual contributions) comes from property taxes assessed to home, business property and lot owners within the Town limits (whether or not they are registered voters), raising property tax rates is the quickest and easiest way to secure the additional resources.
It is an important side note to this discussion that property taxes are a source of COERCED money. Once imposed, homeowners and other property owners have no choice but to pay the taxes, no matter how unfair they think them. Consequently, a Town’s decision to raise taxes should not be taken lightly nor made without considerable forethought.
This is all the more reason why PARTICIPATION in local government, either by a willingness to serve or at the very least participating in the vote that elects representatives is an important part of the democratic process.
By most accounts, the recent property tax increase in Blowing Rock was driven by the fact that past and present town councils deferred routine maintenance and infrastructure improvements because a disproportionate share of scarce resources were allocated to other needs. Instead of addressing water, sewer and streets as imminent threats, money was instead allocated to Police, Fire, Parks & Recreation, or any number of other departments where a convincing case was made for more money.
In November 2014, Blowing Rock voters collectively said that they had had enough of kicking the can down the proverbial road when it came to town infrastructure. More than 79% voted “yes” to new water system bonds, more than 81% to sewer system bonds, more than 73% to streets and sidewalks bonds, and almost 73% for parks and recreation bonds.
We get what we (collectively) vote — or don’t vote — for.
Of course, bonds are debt obligations that need to be repaid over time and carry a cost of money in the form of interest. The most convenient (and logical) way to repay those bonds was to raise property taxes and then Town Manager Scott Fogleman, along with Finance Director Nicole Norman devised a schedule for raising taxes over several years, instead of all at once.
At the same time, the sitting members of the Board of Commissioners were persuaded (by Fogleman?) that our Town employees were underpaid and that if not brought up to some level more closely equivalent to other positions around the region with similar responsibilities, we would start seeing increased turnover, or loss of valuable staff members. To pay for the hefty salary increases in aggregate, even more of a property tax increase was approved.
The purpose of this editorial is not to pass judgment as to whether those policy decisions were right or wrong, but to instead say that we get what we vote (or don’t vote) for.
Nothing against those who chose to run for public office, but it is somewhat embarrassing for the Town to have had only two candidates for Mayor and four candidates for the three open seats on the Board of Commissioners.
When not even half of the Town’s already registered voters actually bother to participate in our participatory form of government, we collectively have no mandate to complain about the decisions being made by our elected officials.
Similarly, those who own property here but register to vote somewhere else other than Blowing Rock, perhaps in a no- or low-income tax state like Florida, are consciously making a decision to forfeit their participation in Blowing Rock government decisions. In short, they have to live with whatever decisions are made by whomever makes them, like it or not.
If there is a flaw in the system, it is that commercial property owners whose residences might lie in the Blowing Rock Fire District or in Blowing Rock School District, but not within the Town limits are not allowed to vote for any of the elected officials or ballot measures that affect them.
We often hear grumbling about increased taxes and other decisions by Town Council that are branded as ill-conceived, but so few people seem to be willing to get personally involved in Town government.
Think about it: out of every 100 people who have actually made a decision to participate in local government by registering to vote, only 41 of them actually took the time and made the effort to participate in the process. Sure, Blowing Rock’s 41 is better than the 11 out of each 100 for all of Watauga County (and actually skews the overall countywide number marginally higher), but less than half choosing to participate is still a feeble effort.
National and state elections may be higher profile and carry more “glamour,” but local and municipal elections have a more immediate and direct impact on our daily lives. Why would we NOT participate?