The ghosts of Christmas past, present and future

Published 8:00 pm Wednesday, December 25, 2019

It seems every year that there’s a new movie version of the Charles Dickens’ classic tale “A Christmas Carol.” Maybe we have so many versions, because we still don’t get it. A story from a mayor, and a debate about the direction of our community, should put things in perspective.

As I write this, there’s a movement in our town to exempt seniors from paying taxes to the public school. I attended a school board meeting, where I heard their complaints, as well as speeches from those who support the public schools.

It just so happens that I had written a column about social capital, and it has spread about on the internet. I received an email from a Georgia mayor, documenting what’s going on in his town. It was like getting a visit from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future all at once.

This mayor of a city I will call “Hagerstown” emailed me, asking for some advice. “Quite simply put, we don’t have much of anything,” he wrote. “The north side of our downtown (Monroe Street) doesn’t have running water or bathrooms. We passed a senior homestead (education) exemption, but lost a T-SPLOST referendum by a large margin. There were several reasons for it, but one of the largest (personal opinion here) is that most voters saw it as a tax instead of an investment.”

He then documented his attempts to build a “Hagerstown” community. “I started taking small steps: showing up at meetings. Calling in resources when they were available. Maximizing our income and investing in the things that made us money … I did a lot of listening, a lot of standardizing and a lot of small things. We updated our website. We promoted the things we have. We worked on being a good neighbor. We still don’t have running water or bathrooms on Monroe Street, but we’re close to putting in sewer. We’re engaging the community. We’re building up what we’ve got in order to get better. So … if you’d like to share any lessons learned in your department, I’d love to listen.”

What is the future of our town going to be? Will we slide towards Hagerstown, where taxes, services, schools and everything about the town will be dirt cheap, including values? I don’t need an email from the mayor to know what this image looks like. As I drive my son to cross-country races across rural West and Central Georgia, I’ve seen those places. We had a name for these places when I lived out in West Texas and Southern New Mexico: ghost towns. You see a lot of boarded up businesses, decaying houses and not a lot of people walking or driving around.

Don’t think this is some “Anti-Boomer” rant. There were plenty of senior citizens who showed up to the school board meeting, and announced their support for the public schools, even those who don’t have kids or grandkids in them, and even moved in from somewhere else. They’re kids of “The Greatest Generation,” where their ancestors paid their fair share into the public schools, and they’re looking to do their part, instead of looking at a public need and saying “not me.” One speaker’s observations were drowned out by loud murmuring and a few hisses. Had they listened, they would have heard that he had served on industrial planning boards and was explaining to us that the quality of local schools matters to businesses deciding where to locate. My college student’s research in that column on social capital found a powerful connection between a strong community and a thriving free market system.

It’s not yet dawn. Like Scrooge, there’s still time to get it right, to give back to the community, to focus on what’s best for all, instead of just oneself. I pray our boomers will see their part in helping create an economic boom for the community with a thriving education system.