Local government matters: Civic engagement at Waynesboro City Council

waynesboroUpon entering the May 13th Waynesboro City Council meeting, I immediately noticed how packed the room was. I scanned the space to gage the demographic: mostly older than 40, but with some younger people scattered intermittently throughout (Troop 73 of the Boy Scouts showed up to earn their civic engagement badges).

Were these meetings always so lively, or was this some kind of special occasion? Every person I talked to told me he or she had never attended one of these public forums before.

Scanning that day’s agenda, the crowd began to make sense. This meeting covered the Waynesboro city manager’s recommended budget for 2020.

After discussing formalities, recent happenings in the town, and some optimistic sentiments about local industry from Mayor Terry Short, the meeting moved quickly into fiscal matters. I had to do some research to understand some of the terminology, but I gathered that although the real estate tax rate of 90 cents per $100  would remain the same, property reassessment could lead to people having to pay more. Affordability was also lower on the agenda than in past years due to our distance from the 2008 recession. The hopes with this tax rate were better employee compensation, more funding for the school, and better public works.

At this point, two contradictory veins of thought created tension in the meeting: the benefits of this tax rate in terms of helping better the town versus the negative effect it could have on residents with lower socioeconomic status. During the public forum section of the night, members of Waynesboro stood up to voice their opinions. Several people displayed concerns about the stress of dealing with tax raises on a fixed income as a retiree, but others praised the tax rate as a possible solution for the high turnover rate in fields such as the police department. Parents of children in the Waynesboro school system stressed the importance of better pay for teachers, while others argued that keeping the tax rate low made sense due to Waynesboro’s above-average poverty rate.

Every person who spoke articulated his or her opinions wonderfully and made excellent points, which highlighted how complicated a matter the budget is. Regardless of their differences in views, people from various backgrounds all banded together in one space to address a common issue. I think this is very powerful, because in 2019, the ability to cordially disagree seems like a rarity. Seeing a group of people so vehemently share their opinions without disrespecting others inspired me. Although this was a budget meeting, it seemed like more than that. I saw a community working towards a common goal: betterment of life for all Waynesboro residents. I also witnessed a level of civic engagement that made me hopeful for the future.

If we can continue to disagree cordially and brainstorm collectively, the problems of Waynesboro, and more vastly, the world, will be much easier to fix. For everyone reading this: continue coming to city council meetings and continue engaging with local government. Although it is impossible for representatives to factor in the needs of every individual, understanding what these needs are is crucial to making decisions that will help the greatest number of people. Change occurs at the local level, since every voice and view becomes much more visible, so just remember that you can make a tangible difference by simply showing up and saying what you have to say.

Article by Tess Majors

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