Chapter 19 - Services and Taxes

It seems correct to say that we did not foresee the extent
to which the growing number of older people
would include many people with
(1) retirement incomes large enough to make them mobile,
(2) the option of retiring at a comparatively early age, and
(3) a desire to choose a rural or small-town setting
for their retirement despite the poorer quality of
medical and community services
that many such areas have.
Calvin Beale

It is a fact that many rural counties and communities provide minimal services. The reason is both cultural and economic. Country people are independent, often dollar tight and loathe to pay someone else to do things they can do for themselves. Many rural communities predictably reject ballot measures that would raise taxes to provide services perceived as not critical. “Critical” is often limited to law enforcement, schools and roads.

Law enforcement

Small towns often have a modest police force and a small jail. County areas are most often serviced by a sheriff and a minimal number of deputies. In low-population areas one local dispatcher may coordinate calls for the sheriff, town police, fire departments and the ambulance service.

Our county of 9,500 has a sheriff and two minimally-trained deputies who provide their own cars and guns. We provide the sheriff’s car and we buy everybody’s bullets. Bullets are not a big budget item. The sheriff is not as good looking as Andy Griffith was in Mayberry RFD, but he smiles just as big, especially with the approach of election time. Our deputies are several notches above Barney Fife and we give them a whole box of bullets. Like the judge, our sheriff is elected by county voters. I can best explain the condition of our county jail by reporting that repeat offenders are only those with really bad memories. The dispatcher, the jail and the sheriff’s office are in the courthouse building in our county seat, which is also the main town in the county—its population is substantially less than a thousand and holding steady.

Schools

A child’s education should begin
at least one hundred years before he is born.
Oliver Wendell Holmes

Rural schools parallel city schools in that they are a reflection of the values of the residents. Community interest and support for student activities is often every bit as valuable as tax dollars. Don’t expect as many frills as big-city or affluent suburban schools offer; Olympic pools and multiple tennis courts are unlikely. There are notable exceptions—visit schools to assure yourself of facts.

Small-town schools often have big-time spirit. Among the schools represented in the 1994 Rose Parade was the award-winning high school marching band of Pipestone, Minnesota, town population 4,500. One-third of the entire high school student body was in the band.

Sandy Banks wrote “Finding the Best School Means Seeking a Culture of Success” (Los Angeles Times, 10-23-94). “Finding a school that will nurture a budding intellect, salve self-esteem and set your child on the road to the Ivy League has little to do with such mundane concerns [as large classes and low test scores]. . . . instead, look at how the desks in the classroom are arranged, find out the teacher’s hobbies, be a ‘student’ on the campus for a day.” Other suggestions are: find a school where people can tell you why and not just what and how they are teaching as they are.

Living outside of town means students ride buses, as I did my last three years of high school. It was a novel experience—out of 26 riders, only two of us were boys, I the oldest. The girls schemed for the privilege of sitting with us. Two boys trying to be fair to 24 girls was an awesome—and rewarding—challenge.

Since 1978, the number of children being homeschooled has jumped from 12,500 to one million (The New York Times Magazine, 10-8-95). Laws affecting homeschooling vary widely from state to state and are changing, sometimes month to month, as more advocacy groups are successful. The nonprofit National Homeschool Association has volunteers throughout the country who are knowledgeable about specific state laws or have contacts who are. The NHA address and phone are listed at the end of this chapter. My contact advises me to tell you to be skeptical of “free” homeschool advice given by individuals or companies offering insurance or other services for a fee.

For those skeptical about the efficacy of homeschooling, know that both Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein were homeschooled—by single mothers.

Transportation and roads

Thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to
travel from coast to coast without seeing anything.
Charles Kuralt

The interstate highway system is finished and the U.S. Department of Transportation, state transportation departments and road engineers are now working on the National Highway System, which will connect the interstates and principal arteries. The new roads will be designed to serve commuter and commercial traffic and will connect cities, ports, airports, border crossings, public transportation facilities and major travel destinations.

By city standards country roads range from adequate to deplorable. County roads are usually dirt or gravel while state roads traversing counties are usually paved. If you expect to commute to work you will want land near a good highway. If you will work at home and clients will not need to visit, you may wish to buy property far from highways, which will lower land costs, lessen traffic noise—which travels far in country quiet—and raise the level of privacy.

Some states help finance rural transportation systems for those who don’t drive, typically older folks. Most do not. School buses serve nearly all areas sending children to public schools. Taxis are usually found only in cities—so if you take one to the country, don’t lose it.

Fire protection

Unless you live in town, you would do well to learn to depend on yourself. Rural areas may or may not have fire departments. If they do they are probably staffed by volunteers. In our county there are twelve member-supported volunteer fire stations spaced to provide minimum response time. Even so, most house fires result in loss of the structure, with the firefighters’ work confined to preventing the fire from spreading. Some only respond to members’ fires, which helps to keep annual dues paid on time. In many rural areas, the state conservation department and U.S. Forest Service maintain a firefighting capability primarily to protect forested areas but available for non-structural emergency private use.

Utilities

Rural electric service is provided by a variety of business entities. Ours is a cooperative, owned and operated by members. Rural electric rates are affected by the ownership entity, the type of fuels used for generation and whether the owners invested in nuclear generation—the shutdown and cleanup costs of nuclear facilities are substantial and will be passed on to customers through increased rates. The property you buy will either have existing electricity to the house, it can be brought in at a price or it will be too far away to be affordable. The alternative to buying electricity is home generation by photovoltaics, water or wind, plus a backup generator powered by gas, diesel or propane. Photovoltaic costs have not become low enough to make this a viable option unless you build about a third of a mile or more beyond existing power lines.

Where there are electric power poles and lines there will usually be telephone lines. If you plan to use a modem, be aware that some old rural phone lines may have line noise that will affect fax-modem transmissions.

Radio and TV reception is weaker in the country and worst of all down in a hollow or valley. If TV is important to you, a satellite dish receiver may be in your future. New models are about the size of a giant pizza and give excellent service. I’ve never checked them for flavor or nutrition.

Waste disposal

Even small towns usually offer trash pickup service. Most areas have some sort of recycling operation, either administered by a town or county government or by a local group. In some places the area landfill management will provide dumpsters to individuals or businesses who then share the service with others for a fee.

In many rural areas there is no trash pickup. This is an opportunity. In truth, there is very little that needs to be sent to a landfill. We sort for recycling, compost all food trimmings and leftovers and burn paper products that we can’t recycle. We buy in bulk to minimize containers. It’s amazing how quickly you can find ways to cut down on so-called waste material. It’s a good feeling to evolve from being an Earth kicker to being an Earth kisser.

Sewage disposal

Rural sewage disposal systems are usually private. They may be as simple as an outhouse, as modern as an indoor composting toilet, as elegant as a greenhouse/water hyacinth system, or as common as a septic tank and leach field. Whichever system you encounter or build, you will be responsible for maintenance. Outhouses and composting toilets need periodic emptying, hyacinths are cut and added to the compost pile, and septic tanks need to have sludge pumped out periodically. A leaking septic tank can pollute a well.

Health care

This subject is covered in Chapter 16—Health 101.

Libraries

No place affords a more striking conviction of the
vanity of human hopes, than a public library.
Samuel Johnson

Did that get your attention? At first this cynical quote perplexed me. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was an eminent English lexicographer and writer. He wrote a dictionary and is widely considered to be the greatest man of letters in English literature, so it is safe to assume that he used words correctly. One would also expect him to have greatly valued books and the places where they are kept. A dilemma.

Research reveals another Samuel Johnson (1696-1772)—this one a philosopher and clergyman—one of the founders of King’s College, present-day Columbia University. His view was that the sensible world is made up of ideas man receives directly from God. That could explain the proposition that books are examples of man’s vain hopes.

Yet more research finds that Samuel Johnson the writer was an expert on the subject of vanity, having written The Vanity of Human Wishes, a great poem about how all human efforts are as nothing without a proper regard for God. This Johnson used the word vanity in a more profound manner than is common today. He gets the nod as the source. Bartlett’s Famous Quotations agrees.

See what you can learn in a library?

Funding for rural libraries is often inadequate or entirely absent. My only serious country living regret is the distance to a large library. Our very modest county library is funded by donations and fund-raisers and is maintained and staffed by volunteers. Notable exceptions to these stark conditions are found in those towns that contain colleges and universities.

I will always treasure books. I can’t imagine curling up with a good computer. Heavy and up-to-the-minute research is another matter. While I have a substantial library and read many periodicals, I also use electronic data sources, CD encyclopedias, on-line services. Once computers become ubiquitous and we all learn how to navigate the electronic information world, libraries will become less necessary. That may take a generation.

Services equal taxes

The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose
as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least amount of hissing.
Jean Baptiste Colbert

Most of us complain about one or another of our taxes. Here’s where you get to choose your real estate taxes, state income taxes and sales and excise taxes. And your services. Because, bureaucratic waste aside (now there’s an oxymoron), the services and taxes go hand in hand, or hand in pocket. Although we can do nothing—legal—about federal income tax and social security tax, by carefully choosing the state and county that we will move to we can choose state income tax, state sales tax, county property tax, local sales taxes, use taxes and fees that we will pay.

Low taxes support minimal services but maximum freedom. Ideally, we buy only as much service as we really need. As one of my criteria, I listed low taxes. I got them. With the exception of the state conservation department, all fire protection in our county comes from volunteer departments that are funded by membership fees and fund-raisers such as recycled-materials sales and auxiliary activity. State roads are blacktop; county roads are gravel. There is no trash pickup beyond town boundaries. There is no planning commission and no zoning commission. If we choose to build a pyramid or a bowling alley in our front yard we are limited only by imagination, energy, finances and common sense. Common sense seems to do the job just as well as if we had zoning laws. There is also no building inspector. I feel certain that you would not believe how low our taxes are.

The historical record shows that voters in our county almost always vote against new tax proposals. Our county commissioners understand from the get-go that they have a steep uphill battle trying to make any “improvements.” Schools, roads, a small sheriff’s department, a jail no sane criminal ever wants to return to and the bare minimum number of county employees necessary to meet state requirements. That’s it. I bought our land in 1976—the property taxes are lower today than they were back then.

Some rural areas, especially those close to cities, provide and charge for almost as many services as cities. Just remember: if you get more services, you pay for them. And in the case of planning, zoning and building officials, you also pay for loss of freedom. Your choice.

Property taxes vary substantially from county to county. Unlike income and sales taxes, the lion’s share of which go to state governments, revenues from property taxes are split 96 percent to local governments and only 4 percent to the state. Fees and miscellaneous revenues are more evenly split, with 57 percent going to local governments and the remaining 47 percent to the state (USDA, AR-31, June 1993).

State sales taxes range from zero to nine percent. Counties and municipalities often add to this. Local officials can give you the rates.

States that do not charge state income taxes have to make up that loss by charging more through another type of tax. New Hampshire is an example of a state that does not tax income or (most) retail sales. Sound good? In Country Careers Jerry Germer states that it is not uncommon to have a New Hampshire property tax bill of $3,600 or more on a $100,000 home.

Devolution

The Citizens for Tax Justice booklet offered below notes that the responsibilities of government “are being shifted from federal to state and from state to local governments.” The tension between the demand for services and the desire for lower taxes will always be with us. This tax shift is certain to produce varying results across the country, as states and counties react to voter demands.

Mark your criteria list according to your specific needs and desires for services—and taxes. Remember: the best tax is the one not due. This is also the time to write your needs and preferences for electricity, telephone and radio and TV reception. Review Chapter 11—Cost of living, if necessary.

Resources

Citizens for Tax Justice
1311 L Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005

202-626-3780 E-mail: ctj@ctj.org;
Web page: http://www.ctj.org
CTJ and The Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy published Who Pays? A Distributional Analysis of the Tax Systems in All 50 States, June 1996.

National Homeschool Association
P.O. Box 157290
Cincinnati, OH 45215-7290
513-772-9580

The people who run this nonprofit organization are unpaid volunteers. For information on homeschooling laws, call and leave a message saying which states you are interested in. A contact in that area will phone you. It will be less expensive for them if you send a note with a SASE. They also have a packet of information for first-time homeschoolers.

World Wide Web

There are several web sites on homeschooling. Just search the subject.

The income tax has made more liars
out of the American people than golf has.
Even when you make [a tax form] out on the level, you don’t know when it’s through
if you are a crook or a martyr.
Will Rogers

Go back to Chapter 18 - Demographics and social conditions.
Go on to Chapter 20 - To build or not to build.
Go back to Country Home TOC.html