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Tales from a small town

Short stories about life in a small town. Non-fiction. Great reading.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Friday the 13th Part I

When I woke up Friday morning, I had no idea it was Friday the 13th. Most would have you believe that this date is unlucky. For me? We'll see. The jury's still out on that.

I looked this over. This is a long post, even for me. That's why if you don't want to read all the way through, I can summarize my experiences trying to convince the "little guy" that our "powers-that-be" in our county are purposely keeping good paying jobs out of our area with this link. Click on it only if you have a DSL or cable connection. Here it is. Enjoy. BTW, prepare to have your speakers on.

I went to work at my factory job, and everything was normal, until exactly 8:00 AM. That's when we all saw this bright flash of light, followed by the lights flickering for a second in a sickly yellow, couldn't see your hand in front of your face. We can't hear thunder on the factory floor because of all the equipment..."What?!!!" (That's an inside joke.) but evidently, there was this freak, mid-winter thunderstorm. A bolt of lighting made a direct hit on a transformer at work.

You know, you never know how dark the inside of a factory can get with no lights on, but our factory doesn't have any source of outside light except the small windows on the outside doors. Wow! It's so dark without the lights on, it reminds you of being back inside the womb!

So, they sent everyone home. I figure I'm going to make the most of this opportunity. Since I bid on first shift, I don't get a chance to meet people whose jobs involve county politics, while they're at their jobs, because we work the same hours. I set out to meet a guy who I needed to talk to while he was at work.

Just recently, there was an article in our paper about how the president of the local farm bureau criticized our county commissioners for not adequately explaining the need for the recent sheriff's levy. Because of the Farm Bureau's lack of support, the levy failed.

I wrote an editorial chastising the president of the farm bureau for not showing up to the meetings where the need for the levy was explained to my satisfaction, and then some. The president of the local farm bureau wrote a response-editorial to mine, making himself look worse.

He was upset because when the sheriff's levy failed, the county commissioners cut the budget to the Agricultural Services sector of the county budget. Yes, I'm aware that agriculture is our county's largest source of tax revenue, but you know, like they always say, "Safety first." The bad guys won't take a vacation because the sheriff can't chase them around and lock them up, so where did the president of the farm bureau honestly think the cuts were going to come from?

In his editorial, he said that because it was a criminal justice levy, he thought the cuts would come out of the sheriff's office. He said the levy was misrepresented to the voters, because voters should have been told that if the levy didn't pass, cuts were going made at agencies who get their money out of the general fund.

As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter. You either support the sheriff, or you don't. You make a choice: you're either supporting the guys in the black hats, or you're supporting the guys in the white hats. What difference does it make where the cuts will come from? But hey, that's just me.

I wasn't sure if this guy was willing to even talk to me or not. I know that in this age of Caller ID, getting someone on the phone who isn't that excited to talk to you, can be difficult. So, I stopped by the grain elevator, and asked to use their phone. Since these are the people who cut checks to farmers - and because the president of the Farm Bureau is himself a farmer - I figured that surely he'd pick up when the phone rings from his source of income; I was correct.

Me: "Fred?" (Not his real name.)

Fred: (excitedly) "Yeah!"

Me: "This is Boris Yeltsin." (Not my real name.)

Fred: (dissapointed) "Oh. Uhhhh, what'd'ya want?"

Me: "I'd like to talk to you at your office if you've got a moment."

Fred: (long, awkward pause) "Uh, OK. I'm runnin' some grain up to Fo Town (local slang for a little burg outside of our town) Can you wait about a half hour? My house is near the mobile home sales place on 12; go down the intersecting road, past the tracks - about 2 miles - then make a right at the sign that says, 'Kalbach Seeds.' Got it?"

Me: "Yeah, I suppose I could wait that long. See you then."

I immediately started to like this guy because he has an old, fat, happy dog. He can't be that bad. The dog tried his best to look ferocious. Didn't work on me, because I'm not afraid of dogs anyway - unless they're crazy.

I waited and waited and waited. Finally, his semi truck with a grain trailer pulls up.

We talked outside. He didn't want us going past the scales he parked his truck on. I didn't have a coat or jacket on, because it was about 50 degrees outside, and I never thought I'd be outside that long. The wind was blowing from the north like crazy, and I was starting to freeze my ass off. Good thing for me, he was too. That's when he invited me in his house.

I decided going in, that I'd agree with just about anything he said, so I could convince him to allow me to speak at a Farm Bureau meeting. He's the president, he gets to set the agenda.

He bashed the Wal-Mart bashers as lazy asses. He told me that it's not Wal-Mart's job to be a social welfare agency and make sure everyone has a nice house and decent car. He said it's Wal-Mart's job to provide the lowest possible prices. He said if you work at Wal-Mart, and you expect a job that will pay you enough money to have a nice house and a nice car, "...go on down the highway, and find yourself a job that pays better."

I bit my lip and nodded my head up and down.

When the subject got around to the reasons for our dueling editorials, things got a little heated. I wasn't backing down on this one, because I felt he was wrong in his assertion that the need for the levy wasn't explained well enough. I asked him exactly how well it had to be explained before he thought it was good enough, and what did that entail?

We went back and forth, so much so, that the rest of his wife's little lap dogs started yapping uncontrollably. They were nervous.

He finally told me something that to his credit, was a valid point when you look at things from his point of view. He said, "I understand that on the surface, the need for the budget is there, and on the surface, there's no doubt that the need for the budget is there. What I'm talking about is what's under the surface."

Me: "What do you mean?"

Fred: "Well, it used to be that health insurance costs for all county departments were lumped together, and had their own line item in the budget. Now, health insurance costs are considered to be part of each department's budget, and health insurance costs are listed under "general expenses," so it's hard to figure from year-to-year, if the expenses of a particular department are going up due to service-related expenses, or if a department's expenses are rising due to increased health insurance costs due to an expensive diagnosis or some type of car accident needing major medical attention. You just don't know. Thanks to a mandate from the State Auditor's office, you can't separate health costs from everything else in line items in the budget."

Me: "How does that prevent the commissioners from not explaining the need for the levy?"

Fred: "Well, determining budget needs is a process similar to looking in the rear-view mirror. You base next year's buget needs on last year's expenses - even if last year's expenses are no longer needed. If you're not careful, you may think that a department may need an extra half a million dollars because of a very expensive and lengthy illness one of it's employees is experiencing, only to find out, the employee in question died shortly after the beginning of the next fiscal year. See where I'm going on this? How do we know there aren't multiple situations just like that, and the commissioners are begging for money when they really don't need to?"

Me: "I see what you're saying. What if there aren't any situations out there like you just described?"

Fred: "That's just it. We really don't know, do we? There's no accounting mechanism to determine what expenses are necessary and which ones aren't. Until we can make those determinations, how can the Farm Bureau support a levy?"

Me: "You just might be on to something. What would it take to get the Farm Bureau on board with the next levy attempt?"

Fred: "Tell the commissioners to set up a mechanism that allows us to determine real needs, not just needs based on last year's expenses. Then maybe, the Farm Bureau will change it's stance."

There was more to the meeting than that. I'm also on a crusade to convince people that our local economic development agency is purposely keeping good paying jobs out of our area, due to fears of wage competition. He wasn't a believer on that. I can see why. Because our local economic development agency has brought in a ton of low-paying factories, they point to the low unemployment rate, get out their pom-poms, and do a cheer, making everyone think they're the best thing since sliced bread. Well, at who's expense? That was what I was trying to get him to see.

Me: "Have you ever noticed a pattern here? Big abatement to a local factory...levy request. Abatement, levy...abatement/levy, abatement/levy. Why do you think that is?"

Fred: "The politicians are stupid, that's why. How's that my fault?"

Me: "It's not, neccessarily. It's our fault for not voting these clowns out of office, and giving someone who's not a household word in local Republican circles, a chance."

Fred: "I can see where you're going on this one. You're the guy you want the public to take a chance on, right?"

Me: "How could it be any worse than what we've got?"

Fred: "What if you prevent low-paying factories from coming in, and in the meantime, no good-paying factories decide to locate here? Then what? How are you going to bring back the low-paying ones you chased away, just because you didn't think they were good enough when they wanted to come in?"

Me: "That's kind of a paranoid outlook, don't you think? Who taught you to think that way? The boys at the country club who have everything to lose if a guy like me gets elected?"

Fred: "Are you suggesting I can't think for myself?"

Me: "No, that's not the case at all. I just know how influential a group of people with nearly unlimited funds can be. They have the illusion of always being right because they're rich. They may not be right, but they are powerful, and in the end, is there any difference between the two? Who cares if the little guy gets squeezed in the process, right?"

Fred: "I'm rich. Are you suggesting that I don't have a conscience?"

Me: "Sure, you've got more money than me. Relax! I haven't asked you for a donation, have I? But just because you've got more money than me, doesn't mean you're rich. It just means you've got more expenses. The boys at the country club; they're rich. And they don't care which lackey does their bidding, just as long as it gets done."

Fred: "Are you suggesting I'm their lackey?"

Me: "That's up to you to decide."

The conversation turned to something else after an awkward pause, but it got much friendlier, and that's when I asked him if I could give a speech at the Farm Bureau sometime.

Fred: "Sure. We meet the 2nd Monday of each month. You're more than welcome to show up and speak your mind if you want to."

I don't know if that promise will be kept or not, or to what exent it will be. I was hoping for a spot on the agenda, with a certain amount of time alloted; not just something where the chair recognizes me, and I stand up and give a few words about whatever topic they just so happen to be discussing, but oh well.

We'll find out if this Friday the 13th was lucky or not.