March 13, 2009
For the past several weeks, there has been increased popular agitation about the increase in real estate property assessments in Augusta County. On Wednesday evening I showed up at the Augusta County Government Center, in hopes of seeing the Board of Supervisors meeting on this issue, but the crowd was too big to let everybody inside, so I eventually gave up and went home.* Seeing the famous tax revolt up close and personal was quite enjoyable, nonetheless. Just as I expected, there was a character dressed up as Patrick Henry (or Thomas Jefferson, perhaps), wearing a white wig and breeches.
When you see all those middle-class folks standing up for a cause they believe to be just, it does put a lump in your throat. It was exactly these kind of modest, independent, hard-working rural "yeomen" that Mr. Jefferson believed were the ideal foundation for American democracy. They are the people who make this country great, and they deserve to be heard, and to be treated fairly. That's my emotional reaction.
Give me tax relief or give me death!
My logical reaction to this expression of public sentiment is a little different. The rank and file citizens I saw were all well-behaved and respectful, but the same is not true of the people who have been leading them. Instead of focusing on the law and on the facts, airing their grievances in a constructive way, they focused on personalities and feelings. Rather than addressing the issue in a calm, rational way, they whipped up passions. Ironically, it's the same approach to politics that launched the careers of "community organizers" like Barack Obama.
My sense is that the protest leaders are ignoring some fundamental facts about this issue. For one thing, the Board of Supervisors is legally obliged to accept the property value assessments, precisely because this is a technical issue that should not be subjected to the passions of politics. The Board of Supervisors does have the power to adjust the rate of taxation that is applied to the assessed values, but they cannot alter those values per se. This is a crucial distinction. As the News Leader editorial on Tuesday said, "the county Board of Supervisors has been advised by County Attorney Patrick Morgan that the board cannot roll back the 2009 assessments." The state attorney general's office has issued a similar legal opinion. In short, the protesters are demanding that their elected representatives violate their oath to uphold the law.
At the Board of Supervisors meeting on Wednesday night, the motion made by Supervisor Tracy Pyles that would have committed the board to throw out the reassessments in defiance of state law was rejected by a vote of 5-2. Jeremy Shifflett was the only supervisor to side with Pyles; he explained that he went with his "gut feeling." A local farmer who ran for the Board of Supervisors in 2007, Michael Shull, lamented that the property tax hikes would make it impossible to keep small farms in the family. They make a good point, but I am deeply troubled by the notion that subverting the rule of law is the only solution. In that regard, I was proud that South River Supervisor David Beyeler flatly refused to buckle under pressure to go back on his solemn vow as a public official. See News Leader and the News Virginian.
* Before I left I picked up some literature at the table near the entrance, including a reprint of the Congressional Record from 1948, entitled "Communism in Action." Also was a page with a quote from a book entitled Will Russia Invade America?
A familiar theme in the early months of the Obama administration has been the failure of several top appointees to pay their full share of taxes, and the same thing has popped up in this case. There was some controversy about the release of information concerning an unpaid tax liability owed to the county by Francis Chester -- the guy who is leading the "Augusta Citizens Against Unfair Assessments" -- amounting to about $2,500. Chris Graham of Augusta Free Press was suspicious about the timing of this news, which reminded him of "Scooter Libby and Karl Rove outing Valerie Plame." That's a bit of a stretch. I don't know about the legalities of tax record privacy, but that was useful information for people to know. Then on Wednesday this week the News Virginian reported that Mr. Chester owes the IRS over $100,000 in back taxes. His explanation is plausible, but it does undercut his position just a tad. Having such a guy serve as the leader of a movement to resist taxes is like having Cheech Marin lead the movement to liberalize marijuana laws.
Property owners of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your claims.
Somehow the local newspapers seem to be missing a crucial aspect of this drama: the man who is leading the tax revolt, Francis Chester, was the plaintiff's lawyer when the former Chairman of the Augusta County Republican Committee, Kurt Michael, took the dispute over the mass meeting to the Circuit Court last May. Likewise, the newspapers don't seem to be picking up on the fact that the publicity behind this anti-tax movement is being run those very same "grassroots" activists who tried and failed to unseat state senator Emmett Hanger in 2007. Once again, they are trying hard to "energize the base" while disparaging rational dialogue, notwithstanding the fact that this strategy has been failing for the Republicans for the last few years. Will they ever learn?
Because of repeated loud disruptions to meetings caused by the "usual suspects" here in SWAC-land, the Augusta County Republican Committee was given notice that it cannot hold its meetings in the the Augusta County Government Center any more, unless it pays for security guards. What's more, I am told by multiple reliable sources, the two SWAC ringleaders have been reprimanded and/or censured by higher-level party officials. Well, it's not like we didn't try to warn them over and over of the trouble that was brewing...
In a further twist on the party alignments in local politics, "SWAC Girl" wonders why the local Democrats are not voicing support for Supervisor (and fellow party member) Tracy Pyles, who has served as the point man on the board for the tax revolt. Will she lead her faction of Republicans to the Democratic side, or will she persuade Pyles to join the Republicans and try to shut out the four incumbent Republican board members? The possibilities are endless.
RNC Chairman Michael Steele was interviewed for GQ magazine, and said that abortion is an "individual choice," while insisting he is pro-life. His views are probably very close to my own on that touchy subject (and on the subject of Rush Limbaugh), but he should know better than to make such a blunt comment at a delicate moment such as this. See politico.com. At this rate, Steele may not last much longer than RPV Chairman Jeff Frederick.
... next year, that is! He admits that the pork-loaded $410 billion "omnibus" appropriations bill is not perfect, but it's the best Congress can do for now, he says. Well, so much for his earnest intentions on reforming the budget. Just wait till next year! See Washington Post.