A TOWN MEETING MEA CULPA
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- I hardly recognized myself at Town Meeting this year. Time after time, I found myself voting against things that, in the ordinary course of events, I would wholeheartedly support.
It's not that I've developed a sudden streak of meanness. The milk of human kindness hasn't curdled my soul. I'm just afraid of losing my home.
They say a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged; the pathetic corollary might be that a conservative is a liberal who votes down a small raise in a teacher's salary, knowing the teacher deserves the raise, because she's being mugged by her property taxes.
The Dummerston School Board and Selectboard go to great lengths to keep the budgets down. With agony and self-examination, the school board eliminated part or all of several positions; the elementary school budget increase was only 2.89 percent, despite the fact that health insurance costs for the school had gone up 9.75 percent. For the town, however, health insurance costs approached 20 percent. Many employers face similar raises this year.
Health insurance costs are unbearable and everyone knows it. Many towns, including mine, passed amendments begging the governor and legislators to create a universal health care system and reduce the "unsupportable burden on town and school budgets," not to mention on private employers, their employees and the self-employed.
The amendment is needed because our Republican governor, who is not a particularly good one, is hampered by a conventional way of thinking. He believes the way to "solve" the health insurance problem is to eliminate what is called "community rating."
Community rating means that an insurance company must insure everyone in a pool - in a business, say, or a community, or a state - at the same rate. The rich and the poor, the young and the old, the healthy and the infirm must all be treated equally. This is the old-fashioned way, one for all and all for one, and when it was practiced, the insurance industry never suffered an unprofitable year that I know of.
But insurance companies turned greedy. They wanted to insure only the young and healthy. The sick and infirm and old, if they could get insurance at all, would have to pay much higher premiums. Adding to the problem, a few years ago several health insurers left the state. There were several reasons, including their underestimation of health costs and the fact that with only 600,000 people, Vermont isn't an economically interesting pool.
The Republicans decided that the insurers left solely because of community rating - the least important reason. Our governor believes that if we eliminate it, the health care crisis will end. "Competition" is his battle cry. "Business" is his god.
But the governor can't control medical costs or increase the state's population, so community rating can't make much of a difference. Some insurance companies may come in to skim the cream off the top, but if the old, the ill and the infirm are priced out of the market, what are we going to do, let them die? No, the rest of us will have to kick in through higher taxes, and we can't afford the ones we have now.
A single-payer plan, where everyone chooses their own doctors but one agency collects all the insurance money and pays all the bills, is the only solution. It saves millions in administration costs.
Health insurance costs are everyone's problem, but the school and town budgets are the battleground. At my Town Meeting, for instance, we spent more than two hours discussing a 20 percent cut in the school librarian's position. Her supporters spoke passionately about her good work and indispensable services. They were right; the school is lucky to have her. She was there - imagine how agonizing it was for her! The savings amounted to a paltry $5,848 out of a budget of $2.7 million. Imagine how desperate we were to spend so much time on the issue!
Besides the bottom line, there was another problem. Last year the librarian was paid $40,622, plus benefits. That's double the amount most people earn in Windham County. Secretaries here start at $16,000. Newspaper reporters start at $20,000. The hourly federal minimum wage is $5.15. In Vermont it's $6.75, or $14,040 a year. It's hard for someone making $20,000 a year to vote for a $40,000 salary.
Mea culpa, I voted for the 20 percent decrease, which passed by a vote of 88 to 82. "Knowing her, she'll probably put in the full 40 hours every week anyway," muttered a woman near me.
It was a heartbreaking vote, one mandated by fear alone. My property taxes go up every year and the figures scare the living hell out of me.
After that it just got worse. The school board had cut a teaching position, and parents were making heartbreaking pleas to restore it. One mother said the extra teacher was vital to her child's well-being and would only add about $95 a year to our property taxes. She spoke as if an additional $95 was nothing at all. I was so mad I found myself thinking, "If it's that important to you, pay for the damn teacher yourself."
I don't have children, and last year that I went around grumbling, "Let the people who have kids pay for the schools." Then a wise woman gently pointed out that a community had once paid for my education, and it was my turn now. One for all and all for one again, you know.
In the end, both the budgets were up - health insurance, special education (the unfunded mandate to end all unfunded mandates), the new addition to the high school, a few other things - but it wasn't as onerous as it could be.
I suppose I should be grateful, but part of the town budget is going for a legally-required town-wide property reappraisal. The value of my house will increase, which means nothing to me - I don't want to sell it, I want to die in it. And even if I was forced to sell, I couldn't afford to buy another home. Plus, a higher appraisal might make my property taxes go up again.
Our property taxes are too high now. We're living in fear of being forced out of our homes and communities. We need help, and at a time like this, business is not the god we should be worshipping.
If one for all and all for one worked for us in the past, it's time to make it work for us again.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.