Thursday, April 8, 2010

how to penalize good citizens

In case you're wondering how a little guy like me ended up so mouthy, I want to show you the remnants of a fight my mom had with city officials in her local community.

My mom, Janet McWilliams, recently discovered that the toilet in an unfinished area of her basement had a slow leak. She got it fixed right away, but because the plumbing is tucked off in a little-used corner of her house, the toilet had already been running--refilling and refilling and refilling--for several weeks straight. The result: Instead of her usual $40 monthly water bill, she received a bill for $1,274.07.

My mom lives in metro Detroit, an area hit hard by the recession. Houses stand empty in her neighborhood. Schools are getting shut down. Unemployment has ripped through the region. My mom has suffered right alongside everyone else. So she was hoping for a little help from the people who are in a position to offer it. She was hoping for some understanding, for some way to work out a less painful cost for her mistake.

She went through the appropriate channels. She called the township. In January, she sent a letter appealing her case to the township supervisor, to the treasurer, to others. She didn't hear a thing for months. In March, she called to find out the status of her request and was told that nobody knew where her letter even was. Call back when the treasurer is here. Call back when the supervisor is here. Call back, call back, call back.

In late March, my mom was finally informed that while the township would accept payment in monthly installations and waive late fees, there would be no forgiveness of even a portion of her water bill. Keep in mind that my mom has been a resident of the township for almost 15 years. She owns her home, free and clear, and has never been late on a single utility payment in all that time. She pays her taxes. She votes. She is a faithful subscriber to the local newspaper, even though I've explained to her that print media platforms are not viable.

Keep in mind, too, that my mom's house is surrounded by properties for which the township is not recouping a penny on utility usage, because the houses stand empty, the former owners gone. At a time like this, you'd think municipalities would be looking for ways to support their remaining residents. You'd think they'd be looking for ways to help residents keep their heads above water. You'd think they'd be looking for ways to cultivate positive relationships with community members.

Yet at least on the face of it, it doesn't look like Redford Township officials are interested in doing any of those things. After my mom exhausted every channel, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Redford Observer explaining her frustration. Out of that came an article, which you can read here.

In the article, my mom says that she found the township's decision not to budge "rational." I disagree. Sticking to tradition, sticking to a set of rules that may well work fine in times of prosperity without paying any attention to the fact that things have changed, treating residents like interchangeable units instead of like the valuable, important assets they actually are--that's deeply irrational. It's that kind of short-sighted thinking that got us into this economic mess in the first place.

In hiring or electing representatives to act on our behalf (and let's never forget that this is exactly the role that local officials are intended to play), we expect them to act in good faith, with all due honesty and fairness. We expect them to try to avoid bureaucracy and to avoid behaving like bureaucrats when whenever possible.

And though I think we've lowered our expectations some after too many disappointments, it's time we started expecting our local officials to behave with empathy and to treat the system of rules and regulations as what they are: guidelines designed to support, not to penalize, good citizens.

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