Let us set no brush fires to the truth


By Scott Robertson

The truth is a fragile thing. Any attempt to augment it destroys it instead.

If, for instance, I say it was 88 degrees on a day when it was 88 degrees, I have told the truth. Yet if I say it was 90 degrees, just to emphasize the point of how hot it was with a hint of exaggeration, the truth is no longer what I have told.

When I say, “the county commission is considering a tax increase,” I can point to the minutes of its last meeting and the agenda of its next. The statement is demonstrably true.

But were I to say, “the county commission is plotting to raise taxes because the individual commissioners will undeniably profit from it,” unless I were to then point how the funds would flow directly from the taxpayers to the commissioners, I would have spoken well beyond anything I could demonstrate to be true.

So why even mention such a thing here and now? Well, Mark Twain has been credited with saying, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” and Twain’s witticism seems to be the fervent rallying cry of a small but vocal gang of anti-tax activists, some of whom were voted off the commission in the last election, and others of whom are failed commission candidates.

A recently sent email from one includes multiple departures from the demonstrable truth. To wit:

“Plan to be at the meetings to show solidarity AGAINST attempts to put into effect a property tax increase for no other reason than to support their lack of fiscal discipline and greed for taxpayer money, to not only line the pockets of their developer, builder, real estate, banker buddies, but also to undeniably profit from these actions themselves.”

Why level accusations at commissioners without proof when one could simply argue against the relative merits of the proposed tax increase? Taxes are deeply unpopular. There’s no need to deviate from demonstrable truth to have a chance to win in the court of public opinion. It’s not like you’re trying to fight against motherhood or cute kittens.

But lacking a “why,” let us examine the “how.”

We must assume the “they” mentioned in the email would be any commissioners who would vote to fund A) construction of a new school, B) renovations to another school, and C) the replacement of aging school buses, roofs on county buildings, and HVAC systems.

The desire to have up-to-date school buildings, leak-free roofing and working climate control cannot be the real reason commissioners would vote for the proposed tax increase, the email’s author says, because there is “no other reason” than an unwholesome mix of indiscipline and greed.

This absolute understanding of commissioners’ motivations is most impressive. Back in journalism school, I was taught to report facts about what people said and did, but to be very, very careful about ascribing motivation. I simply could not know what was in another person’s heart. Yet clearly the author of the email knows with precise clairvoyance what malintent lurks in the black hearts of our county commissioners. The author is never lacking a “why.”

The email text also includes: “Join me and others to stand firmly against those who are depleting the rainy day fund and putting the county in jeopardy of serious deficit. If that occurs, by law the state steps in and could raise taxes any amount required to bring the finances back to positive levels.”

First, the state stepping in would be a political disaster for all involved. Nobody wants that. Pretending that someone does is just silly.

Second, Washington County currently has roughly $14 million in unreserved fund balance. Having millions of dollars in hand and having a “serious deficit” are opposites. You have a deficit when you have more obligations than money. When you have more money than obligations, you have…money.

This is another example of taking a true idea, in this case that the county should not overspend from its cash on hand, and “augmenting” that truth into the county being “in jeopardy of serious deficit.”

This alarmist rhetoric, in fact, argues against the rest of the email. If one assumes that buildings and buses at some point need replacement and/or maintenance – and one also assumes that these things cost money – and if we are against paying from cash on hand because we fear deficits, then guess where that money comes from?

Yup. Taxes. The proposed tax increase would create a revenue stream that would put more money in the county coffers, moving the county farther from deficit status.

The author finishes the email with a quote attributed to Samuel Adams: “…It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds.”

So loud, angry minorities deserve to get their way, even over a majority? Were this the case, we should stop voting and instead just see which small groups can throw the loudest tantrums.

It is disheartening to see the public discourse reduced to this level. I hope the commissioners do better. Whether the proposed tax increase passes or fails, I hope it does so on an argument over its merits, not because the leaders of an irate minority allowed the brush fires in their minds to burn away their obligation to the truth.


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