Imagine two families living in LaGrange. Both inhabit a 1500 square foot house, and this winter both have their heat set at 68 degrees. However, both do not pay the same amount for keeping their children warm. You see, one family is a homeowner who lives in an energy efficient home with quality insulation, windows, and a newer HVAC unit. The other family lives paycheck-to-paycheck in a rental property owned by a slumlord who refuses to insulate the home, change the single pane windows, and barely maintains the archaic gas heater. The homeowner doesn’t have much disposable income, but the working poor renters have absolutely none. Yet, the working poor family pay more to the City’s coffers for utilities and pay a disproportionately higher percentage of their income.
One of the pillars of our house of cards that we call “America’s Greatest Little City” is that we have no property tax. This mantra of “no property tax” has lulled us into accepting a regressive form of taxation where the working poor and mostly single mothers pay more than their fair share for our public services. It’s about time the house of cards comes crumbling down.
Beyond regressive taxation via utilities, let’s name the other columns that prop up this house with a beautiful facade that, like the plantations of the Old South, is maintained by a caste system that benefits the privileged few and oppresses the hard-working poor, all with southern genteelness.
A second pillar is the City of LaGrange’s misuse of our social security number. Relying on a self-proclaimed exemption, the City continues to defy the very spirit, if not the letter, of the Privacy Act of 1974 by requiring that residents provide their Social Security number so as to obtain utilities services. Other municipalities that offer public utilities do not require residents provide this government-issued number and effectively rely upon a deposit system as protections against bad debts.
But not so in LaGrange. When you apply for utilities you must offer those nine digits. A credit check is conducted and your deposit is based upon your credit history. But it doesn’t stop there; the SSN is kept in your file and if you move to another city or state with monies owed to the City, they will track you down with your social security number and, if need be, garnish your wages. Your federally-assigned social security number becomes a tool of social control by your local government even though other less-intrusive forms of protecting our common purse exist.
A third pillar is the collusion between the City’s probation services and public utilities. Debtors’ prisons no longer exist yet the City of LaGrange today still engages in the practice of incarcerating those who fail to pay a criminal justice debt. The most egregious case that I know of was the imprisonment of a man who owed a $50 court fee. Because this man did not live in LaGrange, he spent a few weeks in Troup County Jail before I intervened and paid his fee plus interest (also known as a probation fee). Had he lived in LaGrange, perhaps his story would have been like an unknown number of residents who are being trampled upon by unconscionable practices coordinated by our municipal probation and utilities departments.
Over five years ago, a local single mother pled guilty to misdemeanor charges in LaGrange’s municipal court. She was placed on probation with fines of approximately $3,000. A probationer is usually required to complete community service and report to her probation officer. Each month, a $44 probation fee is imposed upon the probationer which oftentimes can result in the total amount paid for a fine doubling or even more.
In this single mother’s case, after a few years still on probation and probation fees increasing her total debt to the City to over $4,000 she claims she was jailed for 45 days, allegedly for inability to make payments on her fine and fees. This mother asserts that when she was released from jail her probation officer threatened to send her to a collections agency. What eventually happened was that this working poor mother was removed from probation but her “debt” was rolled over to her utilities bill.
Once rolled over, she claims she was issued a seven-day notice that without a significant payment to her “utilities” bill she and her children would face having their water, gas, and lights cut-off. She contends that in less than a week her utilities were disconnected and this woman, who was in her second trimester of pregnancy, was in a predicament. The City had gone beyond imposing justice for a misdemeanor infraction from years ago; now she and her children were being punished by having their access to water, heat, refrigeration, and other necessities denied. To this day this single mother and her children are forced to live with a relative because the misdemeanor conviction has now made her ineligible to reapply for utilities because of the debt that remains at approximately $2,000 plus possible additional late and reconnect fees.
It is time to pull down this house of cards and its pillars that support a facade of greatness. True greatness will come when the City embraces more proportionate forms of taxation. True greatness will come when our local leaders honor our right to privacy. True greatness will come when the City ends the virtual and literal imprisonment of debtors and their children and creates an ethical wedge between the public utilities department and court probation services.
LaGrange will be America’s greatest little city when we are known by our love for one another. First John clearly reminds us:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love… If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
When we love one another, we will recognize that God lives not only in those of us who live on Country Club Road but also on Colquitt Street. Our City leaders must not impede this love.
(Written by Anton Flores-Maisonet and originally published in LaGrange Citizen.)