Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Free water presents problems

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The Mount Airy Town Council made a mistake by voting 3-1 last month to give free water and sewer service to houses of worship.

In fact, it made a similar mistake in part in December by voting to give free water and sewer service to the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company.

Before we go any further, though, we need to explain the ‘‘in part” of that statement because we do not want anyone to interpret our opinion as being hostile to the fire company. We are not.

The fire company should not pay for water it uses to fight fires or in training to fight fires. Water use in this fashion benefits the town as a whole, and the least the town can do is provide free water for such uses.

But we do not understand why the fire company should have free water and sewer service for uses not directly associated with fighting fires (cooking, showering, etc. at the station or activities building).

And we do not understand why houses of worship deserve to have free water and sewer service anymore than other nonprofit organizations that serve the public.

But let’s take a couple of steps back.

Not billing the fire department and churches in town for water and sewer service has been an unofficial practice since the town’s sewer system was installed in the 1970s.

At the November Town Council meeting, when Councilman John Woodhull initiated this discussion, Oscar Baker, a longtime member of the fire company, said the town started giving the fire company free water in lieu of a financial donation.

No one is certain how or when free water for churches came about, but some received it while others did not.

That troubled Mr. Woodhull, not because of the money involved — which is not believed to be much — but because of the inconsistency. The town did not have a policy on free water, and that was problematic, he argued.

Why are some nonprofits worthy but others not? he essentially asked.

That is a good question, and the council answered it by saying that the fire department and houses of worship deserve free water.

We disagree.

If one nonprofit receives free water, so should they all. By doing otherwise, the council is saying that some nonprofits are better than others.

Now, not all nonprofit organizations have freestanding buildings, as does the fire company and churches. But some nonprofits are headquartered in people’s homes, and do a lot of positive work out of those homes, so should the town give free water to those homes?

To do otherwise is to value some nonprofits more than others, which is dangerous territory for a government to tread.

The one exception we agree with is free water for the fire company to use to fight fires and train to fight fires. That may mean they have to fill their trucks and tanks at non-metered fire hydrants, but we don’t understand why that should be a big issue.

If it is, though, and the fire company needs to use metered spigots at the fire station to train and fill its tanks, then the town could bill the fire company for non-fire water (cooking, showers) by estimating its use based on average residential use.

It might not be perfect, but it seems more fair to us.

Take the time to vote Tuesday

We will have the chance Tuesday to do something that makes many people around the world envious: vote for the people who run our government.

Yet many of us take voting for granted, and see it more as an annoyance than a responsibility.

We wake up too late to vote early in the morning, and traffic chips away at our morale on the way home. Some of us can vote during a lunch break, but many of us work an hour away from home and don’t have the luxury of voting in the middle of the day.

We can vote on our way home from work, but what about dinner for the kids? And who’s going to make sure they do their homework if we’re out voting?

Plus, who likes to stand in line to do anything?

Yes, you can find any excuse to not vote on Tuesday, but if you don’t make it to the polls, do you not also surrender your right to complain about the people in office?

Voter turnout is usually dismal during a primary election, though this year should be higher than two years ago because we are voting for president.

And while you think about your presidential vote, remember that you will also have your choice for the Board of Education. The school board spends a lot of your money, and our children spend a lot of their time in school, so little is as important as the people who help run the system.

Log onto www.gazette.net⁄votersguide08 for our guide to this year’s primary, but let that be the starting point of your research.

Democracy works best when our leaders are elected by the majority of eligible voters, not just the majority of people who voted.

See you at the polls.