Saturday, December 19, 2009

I Seem To Have Hit A Nerve

My most recent column has really generated some interest. I find it fascinating because I really didn't say anything new or different, I just happened to give an example of government spending that a lot of people around here happen to like: Christmas Light Displays. You can go to the newspaper's site for the column itself to read some of the comments.

HARBESON: ’Tis the season of taking taxes ... and giving lights

Some people really get into Christmas decorating and end up with lights and displays covering nearly all of their property.

I’m way too lazy to put up much for Christmas, but I do appreciate a nice display when I happen to see one and I’m sure it’s fun for those who enjoy spending their time and money this way.

But when a government spends taxpayer money on such things, it raises lots of questions. For example, is it really necessary or even proper for the city of Charlestown to force taxpayers to fund a huge Christmas light display just because Mayor Bob Hall has a need to say his is bigger?

Now, Charlestown certainly isn’t the only government entity spending money on seasonal decorations, but they are actively seeking attention by claiming to be Southern Indiana’s largest.

The city administration’s actions have definitely put the spotlight on this type of government spending, so I guess Mayor Hall is getting his Christmas wish to be noticed.

When the mayor says, “Our desire is to be known as a Christmas town,” I wonder who he’s referring to when he says “our.” Does he mean himself and other government employees? If so, the next question is whether or not he should be making such decisions.

Or is he trying to make a claim that every single resident shares this desire?

This cannot be the case, because we know he didn’t ask each and every person in order to get unanimous consent that this is the city’s desire. I can guarantee you that residents have varying opinions.

Of course, the only reason it matters is because coerced funds were used to help pay for the display. No one knows how much, though, because Clerk-Treasurer Donna Coomer said they have to wait until the invoices come in, which won’t be until January.

But maybe this makes some sense for a city that wants to be known as a Christmas town. After all, lots of people go overboard buying things on credit and have to wait until they get their January bill to see what they spent, too.

Neither Coomer nor Mayor Hall wanted to give an estimate on the taxpayer cost, which is kind of funny since they seemed proud to know and share other estimated numbers relating to the display, such as the number of lights and how many people attended the initial lighting ceremony.

Mayor Hall defended spending taxpayer money when he said, “People pay for an image and advertising everywhere.”

I think he forgot that those people — unless he’s talking specifically about other governments — don’t forcibly take other people’s money to do so. They spend money they’ve earned from providing a product or service that customers voluntarily pay for.

This particular spending of government money is particularly troubling since the Christmas spirit is supposed to be all about the virtue of giving. What image is really on display when Charlestown’s officials think it’s perfectly fine to spend other people’s money that was taken by government force in order to put up decorations to celebrate Christmas?

Rarely has so much light glared so garishly on the truth.

The biggest disappointment in this situation has to be that in addition to the taxpayer funding, volunteers donated many hours of their time and local businesses also donated money, which means this decorating could have been accomplished totally through voluntary means.

What a wonderful message the people of this city could have sent if they had developed and created a totally voluntary display of lights and decorations. That would have really made Charlestown truly a Christmas city.

Sellersburg resident Debbie Harbeson once auditioned for a living Christmas tree but was turned down because they said she was a dim bulb.


  1. To those who said you were being "negative," I offer these two scenarios:

    1) The town announces that it would like to put up a Christmas display and asks whether anyone is interested in donating. Those who want a display would offer money and get involved. Kind of like what happens in churches and other voluntary group organizations (although it's arguable how voluntary churches are).

    2) The government takes our money, as much as it wants, and spends it on whatever it wants. We are left to feel grateful when it chooses to spend our money on something that we like or support - like pretty lights.

    Which scenario makes more sense?

    Some argue that no one would choose to donate money, but there are thousands of churches, business, and other voluntary organizations around the country that had their own Christmas displays, and which maintain sustainable operating budgets achieved on a voluntary basis. People will support what is important to them.

    Understandably, however, people feel less able or willing to support things voluntarily when almost half of their money is taken from them involuntarily. How many people are able to afford to give even more?

    This doesn't even take into account the fact that there is no such thing as public property (that's a contradiction in terms), and so no one has the right to decorate said "property" using other people's money.

    Well done, Debbie. I personally appreciate how you "lay it on the line," and I look forward to having a place where I can work out more of my thoughts.


  2. You're welcome Cheryl. I'm looking forward to more of your thoughts on these issues.

    You really hit something when you said "we are left feeling grateful." I never really thought of it quite like that but that's exactly what some people were trying to tell me.